By Linc Leifeste | September 5, 2013
Director: Jonathan Holiff
Writer: Jonathan Holiff
Within minutes of it’s 88-minute running time, it becomes apparent that My Father and the Man in Black inherently runs the risk of coming across as self-indulgent storytelling. The writer and narrator is Jonathan Holiff, a former Los Angeles talent agent, but his main claim to fame (and reason for the documentary) is that his father was Saul Holiff. That name probably means nothing to you unless you’re a big fan of Johnny Cash, in which case you might realize he was Cash’s longtime manager from about 1960 until resigning the role in 1973. The film starts with a reenactment of the senior Holiff committing suicide in 2005 at the age of 80, followed by the younger Holiff’s voiced-over narration explaining that the two had been estranged for twenty years and that Saul had never been much of a father at all. Jonathan also reveals that he was quite the Hollywood hotshot himself before hanging up his talent agent shoes and heading back to his native Canada to spend time with his mother, hoping to avoid the ghost of Saul Holiff.
But three months later Walk the Line is released and the phone begins to ring at the Holiff household. Journalists want to know about the “Johnny-and-Saul” relationship. Of course Jonathan had no answers for them, at least until he discovered his father’s storage locker filled with boxes and boxes of Cash memorabilia as well as hundreds of letters and audio recordings of phone calls between the men and his father’s audio-diary that he’d recorded from the time that Jonathan was born up until shortly before his death. This discovery is obviously reason for excitement for Johnny Cash fans but if you’re not a fan of reenactments in documentaries, you’ll probably be pretty skeptical of My Father about fifteen minutes in, with Holiff’s reenactment of entering the storage locker for the first time feeling painfully melodramatic.
But as the film’s focus turns from Jonathan to his father’s life story, particular his relationship to the Man in Black, it quickly becomes alluring. Told visually through shots of vintage photos and newspaper clippings, the story of Saul’s unlikely rise from humble beginnings in London, Ontario to becoming manager to Cash, playing a vital and under-appreciated role in his career success, is fascinating. Holiff was there for Cash’s most self-destructive period in the mid-60’s and his audio diary begins just a week after Cash’s suspended sentence for smuggling drugs across the Mexican border, recounting an episode in Toronto in 1966 where Cash had OD’d on pills and everyone in his entourage feared he had died. And this was a tour on which Saul and his wife Barbara had brought along their then nine-month-old son. Along with the arrests, there are missed shows and disastrous performances, eventually leading to lawsuits, reduced bookings and booking fees, leading to an ever-increasing adversarial back and forth between star and manager.
Saul was a methodical and principled man who struggled to change Cash’s ways but the endless stresses of this period contributed to his own increasing reliance on alcohol. As Cash finally detoxed and cleaned up, his manager was going in the other direction. The documentary credits Holiff as playing a leading role in several key moments in Cash’s final ascent to superstardom, among them bringing June Carter in as a member of Cash’s roadshow and advising him to switch producers from Don Law to Bob Johnston (Johnston being key in making Cash’s Folsom Prison record a reality). It’s fascinating to watch this relationship which started with a friendly tone become more akin to a father-son relationship before morphing into an adversarial brotherly relationship up until Cash’s born-again religious conversion to fundamentalist Christianity. It’s clear it was at that point that the relationship became doomed and the dynamic between this southern fundamentalist star and his Jewish Canadian manager is intriguingly depressing. It’s painful to learn that Holiff was cast as Caiaphas (the Jewish high priest credited with organizing the plot to kill Jesus) in Cash’s ill-conceived, ill-received, self-financed film Gospel Road. Not much later Johnny and June called Holiff into a meeting to express their concerns about his lack of fire for their proselytizing activities and he gave his notice.
Throughout the thrilling story of Johnny and Saul’s relationship we’re given small tidbits of Saul’s poor relationship with his sons. Away from home for long stretches during their formative years, he speaks of wishing he had time to throw a football with his boys although it’s clear that in reality he has no interest in anything of the sort. By the time he retires and has time for his family, he’s a shell of his former self, drinking heavily and tending to interact with his sons only via raging diatribes. We learn via his audio diaries that he once had feelings and concerns for his sons but we also learn that he cashed in Jonathan’s trust fund, creating a detailed itemized list of the expenses of raising him to justify his behavior. And most importantly, as the film brings its focus back from Saul the manager to Saul the father for its last act I felt myself invested in the story and the storyteller, no longer as put off by the wounded, anguished voice of the narrator.