Directed By: Walter C. Miller
Starring: Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Kris Kristoferrson, Rita Coolidge, Steve Martin, Tom T. Hall, Anne Murray and Andy Cauffman
These two seventies Christmas specials, one filmed in Los Angeles and the other at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville, are the perfect prescription for some nostalgic Christmas spirit.
Each year is actually packaged separately but they are so similar it seemed silly to do individual reviews for them. They are each about fifty minutes long and they both feature a male and female guest and a comedian along with Johnny and June. Neither one is all that Christmasy, the both feel more like an hour long musical variety show with a few Christmas songs thrown in. That being said they both have a different feel.
The 1978 Special starts out with Johnny solitary on a plastic fantastic stage. The stage is white with a thick red lighted border, the back drop is lit with green light and adorned with silhouettes of Christmas trees. Somewhere back there is the band, they are hidden by three large panels with interchangeable inserts, but you get a glance of them every now and then. Right now the inserts are three large white plasticity looking wreaths. Johnny is wearing a long jacket with and a vest with a big bow tie. The color of course is black. The shot is vignetted with a white border and the lighting is nice and soft but the effect is kind of spoiled as the camera zooms in close enough to show all of Johnny’s little twitches and tics, he looks nervous as hell. Thankfully you can’t tell from listening to him. After the first number we get introduced to Steve Martin and a forced gag that Steve is charming enough in but isn’t really that funny. After Steve’s gag Kris Kristofferson joins Johnny on stage which seems to settle Johnny down a bit. I swear there is a moment as they are singing Sunday Morning Coming Down that Johnny looks over to Kris asking with a look “how we doing buddy” Kris smiles back “just fine”. Of course maybe I’m just seeing things, it’s hard to imagine Johnny Cash being intimidated by a hour long network special. Another mystery, where is Steve Martin’s banjo? It’s hard to imagine a country music Christmas special with Steve Martin and there not being a banjo number whether it’s done straight or as a gag, they talk about him playing the banjo, but he never does. Maybe there just wasn’t time to work something up.
All the performances are great. Seeing Rita Coolidge and Kris Kristofferson perform together is a real treat and it’s always special seeing June and Johnny together. And the final number, a tribute to Mother Maybelle who had passed away that year, with all of Johnny and June’s daughters is especially touching. The way the numbers are shot and edited are pretty interesting as well. The stage is small and they weren’t afraid to get close with the camera from a bunch of angles more interesting than that though are the cutting edge late seventies video techniques like the picture in picture and kaleidescope shots. The editing along with the stage and the clothes make this a real trip down memory lane.
For the 1979 Special the Cash’s return to Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry House. It opens up with a little sketch introducing this year’s guests, Andy Kauffman, Tom T Hall and Anne Murray. The sketch is cute enough and it’s an excellent segue to Johnny standing solitary on the stage and after the obligitory “Hello, I’m Johny Cash” he breaks into an excellent rendition of Riders in the Sky. Johnny’s dressed in tails, vest and bow tie once again, and seems much more comfortable this year, but the camera isn’t zooming in as close this year so maybe he just doesn’t look as nervous. The Grand Ole Opry stage is much bigger than the studio stage from 1978 and while there is still no doubt that this was recorded in the seventies at least it doesn’t scream game show set. The important thing though is that Johnny seems more comfortable for this performance and appears to be enjoying himself. Of course it could be that the camera is just not zooming in so close this year.
Anne Murray and Tom T Hall are great and the comedy sketches with Andy Kaufman are a little more integrated than Steve Martin’s bits. Actually it’s not really Andy Kaufman but Andy Kaufman playing Latka from Taxi. He does break character long enough to do an amazing Elvis impersonation. This time mixed in with the stage performances are interviews with Johnny’s family and childhood neighbors back in Dyess, Arkansas which is particularly entertaining when reminisces about the flood that inspired Five Foot High and Rising are mixed in with Johnny performing the song. Like the 1978 special less than half the numbers are actually Christmas songs, but the special does end on with a Christmas song. This time with Johnny and June’s son John Carter Cash’s entire school class on stage as everybody does one last number.
The video is generally excellent. I noticed only minimal aliasing and no other compression artifacts. The really only problem with the video is in the introductory sketch for the 1979 special. There are a bunch of sprites that are present that reminded me of a bad videotape, so I’m assuming it is an issue with the source material.
The audio is presented in the original mono in English, there are no subtitles. With something like this I guess your pretty much stuck with whatever source material you’ve got. There is some serious distortion on the lead vocals of nearly every performance in the 1978 Special. It sounds like Johnny and friends were overdriving the mics. The backup vocals and the band sound fine however. The 1979 Special doesn’t have this problem. There is a fair amount of mic handling noise in both specials which I guess was unavoidable days in the days before wireless mics. Other than the distortion in the 1978 Special the audio is nice and crisp with no hissing or popping.
The Packaging and Bonus Features
The DVDs come in matching Amaray cases with a nice big picture of Johnny in a holly trimmed jacket on the front. The copy on the back of the case list the guests and provide a detailed song list which lets you know exactly what your getting. The menu’s mirror the artwork on the case and while simple are very nice. The only extras are some Shout Factory trailers.
There are several really great performances of Johnny on these DVDs, the duet with Kristofferson of Sunday Morning Coming Down and the duet with June of If I Were a Carpenter , particularly stnd out but I think the real thrill of these Specials is the feelings of nostalgia these invoke. I remember actually seeing a taping of a Johnny Cash special at the Grand Ole Opry House when I was a kid. I figured out with a little help from my parents that it couldn’t have been this one but there is no doubt that we would have watched it on TV when it was broadcast. If your just looking for some genuine seventies cheese I would pick up the 1978 special before the 1979, even though the 1979 special actually holds up better as straight entertainment the 1978 special with the video effects and uniquely seventies stage just has an odd vibe that makes me want to watch it over and over.
Overall (Not an Average) 7/10
The Movie 7/10
The Video 7/10
The Audio 5/10
The Packaging and Bonus Features 4/10
Overall (Not an Average) 7/10