Johnny Cash’s ‘Hurt’ Delves Into Life Of Former Hell-Raiser: VMA Lens Recap

Despite clip's dark imagery, director Mark Romanek views it as celebration of life.

Many music videos tend to be about escape and illusion — the illusion of fame, wealth, sex, glamour and fantasy. The video for Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” isn’t about any of those things. It deals with a theme not so common in music videos: reality.

In the short history of music videos, few have had the emotional heft and visual impact of the clip shot by director Mark Romanek in the Tennessee home of the ailing country legend.

“This [concept] is completely and utterly alien to what videos are supposed to be,” Romanek said. “Videos are supposed to be eye candy — hip and cool and all about youth and energy. This one is about someone [moving] toward the twilight of his career, this powerful, legendary figure who is dealing with issues and emotions you’re not used to encountering in videos.”

The video for the cover of the Nine Inch Nails ballad from last year’s American Recordings IV: The Man Comes Around features a morose-looking Cash singing the lines “What have I become, my sweetest friend?/ Everyone I know goes away in the end,” before fatalistically promising to leave behind his “empire of dirt.”

A montage of moving, dimly lit images of a weathered Cash playing piano and guitar in his memorabilia-stuffed home is mixed with glimpses of the flood-damaged House of Cash museum and archival footage of the country legend as a young man. Romanek, who has directed videos for Madonna, Beck and Audioslave, as well as last year’s film “One Hour Photo,” said he made the clip with no commercial expectations or calculations, fully expecting that it would not be shown on major video outlets.

“I begged [the album's producer] Rick Rubin to let me shoot something to that track,” said Romanek, who heard the song several months before the album was released and fell in love with its stark sound.

After several attempts to convince his friend Rubin to let him shoot the clip, even offering to do it for free, longtime Cash fan Romanek finally succeeded in scoring the gig. But after plans to film it in Los Angeles fell apart due to Cash’s health, Romanek had only a few days to conceive and shoot the video before Cash left for his annual health sabbatical in Jamaica.

“I wanted to do two things,” he said. “I wanted to celebrate this legend and his achievements but also be very candid about what Johnny’s life is like right now.” Cash suffers from a nervous-system disease, autonomic neuropathy, which renders him susceptible to pulmonary disorders.

Romanek hopped a red-eye to Nashville on a Wednesday night and spent the next day scouting locations in Cash’s house and at the museum, quickly putting the concept together in his head. Though he’s known for such elaborate videos as Michael and Janet Jackson’s “Scream,” Romanek thought the “Hurt” video should be firmly focused on the 70-year-old man in black, with no gimmicks and no trick shots.

“His music has always been extremely candid,” Romanek said. “That’s what I wanted to draw from. I didn’t want to make a phony video. I wanted to tell the truth but not be insensitive, because Johnny is not in the peak of health right now.”

The one consolation to the warts-and-all approach was the metaphorically arresting footage of the House of Cash museum, which appears to have fallen into decrepitude. Though the imagery makes for high drama when run alongside snapshots of Cash, Romanek admitted that the museum was more a victim of a flood rather than neglect.

The rest of the video is a haunting portrait of a clearly fragile Cash juxtaposed with archival glimpses of a hale and hearty hell-raiser hopping trains, visiting his abandoned childhood home and taking walks with his family. The intercut footage came from several boxes pulled from Cash’s private collection and lent to Romanek, who spent weeks combing through hundreds of hours of tape.

“I’ve gotten letter after letter from people saying that the video made them weep and they can’t stop watching it,” Romanek said. As further proof of its success, the perennially cool but commercially hard-to-pigeonhole Cash has now been nominated for several MTV Video Music Awards — ‘Hurt’ has gotten a nod for Video of the Year, among other awards (see “Missy, Justin, Johnny Cash, 50 And Eminem Top VMA Nominees List” ).

“I’m most proud of the fact that it’s causing this visceral, emotional reaction,” Romanek said. “That’s the whole reason to make any sort of film. You don’t often have the opportunity to do that with a music video because that’s not usually what you’re being asked to accomplish.”

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