Ungallant as it may seem to criticize any artist who feels driven to share his religious passions with the world, it would be irresponsible to describe The Gospel Road—alternately and more ponderously titled Gospel Road: A Story of Jesus—as anything other than bizarre. Johnny Cash, the legendary country singer-songwriter known as much for his bad-boy antics as for his indelible tunes, might seem more attitudinally aligned with Christ’s opposite number than with the Lamb of God, and yet here he is onscreen, wearing full “Man in Black” regalia, as he recites passages from the Bible and gives country-preacher sermons about Jesus’ life story. Even though this project seems deeply sincere, it’s also deeply weird to see Cash standing atop a mountain in Israel, where the picture was filmed, and to hear his familiar book-chicka-boom rhythm in a movie that also includes the Last Supper and the Crucifixion.
Created as a companion piece to Cash’s 1973 double album of the same name, The Gospel Road comprises shots of Cash, re-creations of Bible scenes that are accompanied by Cash-penned ditties, and re-creations that are accompanied by lush orchestral numbers, also culled from Cash’s album. (Snippets of dialogue appear, too.) Cash performs most of the songs, though he recruited pals including Kris Kristofferson and the Statler Brothers to handle certain tunes. Plus, inevitably, Cash’s wife, June Carter Cash, makes an appearance—not only does June play Mary Magdalene (thus gifting Mary with an inexplicable Virginia twang), but she performs the sweet pop ballad “Follow Me,” which was written by that icon of theological insight, John Denver. The mind reels, especially when a straight-faced Johnny Cash intones such remarks as, “I think if I was a little-bitty kid, if Jesus had come by, I would have run to him.” (Okay, one more: “Mary Magdalene was the kind of woman that Jesus had a lot of love and compassion for.” You don’t say, Johnny!)
Adding to the overall oddness of the piece is the fact that adult Jesus is played by the film’s director, Robert Elfstrom, who looks more like a Viking than a child of Jerusalem. On the plus side, though, Elfstrom’s bland non-acting is easier to take than June’s overwrought attempts at simulating spiritual ecstasy. Somehow, Johnny Cash manages to get through the movie with his dignity intact, perhaps because never slips into period clothing. Still, this picture is unlikely to qualify as a must-see for any but the devoutly Christian or the devoutly Cashian—which, if it isn’t a word, probably should be.
The Gospel Road: FUNKY