NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” Video

(Nashville Skyline is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Music videos come and go, but the stunning video for Johnny Cash’s Hurt is one that will endure for a long, long time. Visually arresting, artistically captivating, emotionally devastating — it’s the kind of drama to which great music videos aspire.

It’s a gripping testimony to Cash’s career and to the magnitude of his stature both as an artist and a man. Along the way, it graphically demonstrates his elevation to worldwide icon. The song, written by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, is the kind of bleak and gaunt story oft favored by Cash. In this case, it can be viewed as a sort of coda to Cash’s life. Or not, depending on your interpretation or deconstruction of both the video and the song.

Cash continues to recover from some health concerns of late and was unable to be interviewed about the video. But I was curious about how it was created, so I called the video’s director.

Mark Romanek is well known as a director of rock videos for, among others, Nine Inch Nails, David Bowie, Lenny Kravitz, Mick Jagger, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson and R.E.M. Last year he made his big screen directing debut with One Hour Photo, starring Robin Williams. Romanek also wrote the screenplay for that. So how did he come to direct Cash?

The venture began, he said, because he’s been friends with Rick Rubin (head of Cash label American) for years and has been “pestering him for years to do a Cash video because I’m just a huge Johnny Cash fan.” Rubin played him advance tracks of the new Cash album (American Recordings IV: The Man Comes Around), and Romanek told him, “Look, I’m making a video for ’Hurt,’ OK? Let’s just make this work. I’ll do it for free, I’ll do it for a real reasonable budget.”

Romanek said that although he hasn’t heard anything much he’s liked in country music produced since 1965 or so, he’s a devoted Cash fan. “The whole impetus behind the thing was to do something for Mr. Cash,” he said. Romanek was surprised to get immediate public reaction from the video — the first time he’s gotten any such public reaction in his 11 years of making videos. So, he’s gratified. “People just aren’t used to experiencing those kinds of emotions when they’re watching a music video,” he said. Romanek wasn’t surprised when I told him that public response has been intense to the video at CMT and “You put yourself in a certain mindset when you know you’re about to see a music video and it certainly isn’t the kind of mindset that’s prepared to deal with these issues,” he said.

The video began, he said, with a treatment that was stylized and not so literal as to Cash’s life story and current situation at home in Nashville. “I was going to buffer the intensity of the song with something a little metaphoric and shoot it in a set in Los Angeles as more of a conceptual piece,” said Romanek. “Trent Reznor would make a cameo, and maybe Beck, who digs Johnny’s stuff.” Schedules conflicted, though, and Cash was ready to spend the winter at his estate in Jamaica to escape the cold Nashville winter and his own predilection to pneumonia. Cash could not travel to Los Angeles, so Romanek rushed to Nashville to take advantage of the window before Cash left for Jamaica.

“I got on a red-eye on a Wednesday night,” he said. “I arrived in Nashville Thursday early morning like at 6, had no specific concept in mind other than that we were gonna have access to Johnny in his home and possibly access to the House of Cash Museum, which was in a state of some disrepair. … All day Thursday, I scouted around Johnny’s house and I scouted the museum and kind of came up with this concept about shooting in this area, with the piano silhouetted against the window and the dining room with kind of a banquet spread out before him.”

Romanek’s videos have usually been carefully sculpted. This one ended up not being so. “For some reason I knew that the song and Johnny’s presence would pretty much carry anything that I pointed a camera at. The shoot was just two quick days.” Cash’s performance of the song in his Hendersonville, Tenn., home was followed by another two weeks of archival search.

Rubin had told the Cash family that Romanek’s love for Cash’s music was genuine and his interest in the video was correspondingly so. As a result, the House of Cash was opened up for a shoot, and the Cash film and video archives were made available.

The cascade of symbolic images in the video — including the Christ figure being crucified, the visit to the abandoned childhood home, Cash’s defiant concert at Folsom Prison, a triumphant Cash as locomotive engineer — came from the Cash film archives.

“We spent two weeks looking at literally hundreds of hours of film,” he said. “We were just kind of looking for very graphic close-ups and things that would read in the fast cutting of a music video and just had some sort of poignancy or connection to the music in some way. We had to jettison a lot of stuff that was incredible that just didn’t suit the video. I should say that the video’s editor is Robert Duffy, who is something of a genius.”

The great thing about images in a music video, said Romanek, is that they seem effortless but actually carry a great deal of cargo. “You go on your instincts. You find the right image and put it right on the right sound and the right lyric, and then you get a new equation, a kind of frisson happens, and you try to get as many of those moments to happen as you can, and then you have something quite pure, because you’re not burdened by narrative, so this is essentially one of the few purely poetic forms of filmmaking left. It’s just that most music video directors don’t seem to take advantage of that.”

Some of the frankness in this video has shocked some viewers but, as Romanek is careful to point out, Cash’s music and life have always been an open book. “There’s a directness and a frankness there,” he said. “I think he connected directly to the song. … This song feels like it was meant to be sung by him. That’s why I was drawn to it so much.”