From the early 1960s until 1973, Johnny Cash had an unlikely, but by all evidence effective, manager in Saul Holiff, a Canadian concert promoter and hamburger-stand owner who pushed Cash to get more ambitious with his career, and picked up the pieces whenever Cash’s excesses threatened to rip that career apart. Holiff essentially dropped out of Cash’s story after their split, retiring from show business, returning to college, then committing suicide in 2005, two years after the death of his former client. In My Father And The Man In Black, Holiff’s son Jonathan Holiff, a talent agent and TV producer directing his first film, attempts to tell his father’s story. He does so from a distance. Estranged from his father for years before his death, Jonathan relies on a storage locker filled with memorabilia and audiotapes—whose contents include an audio diary and phone conversations with Cash—to fill in the blanks.
As a filmmaker, Holiff seems a little unsure what blanks need filling. My Father And The Man In Black is partly a biography of Saul Holiff, partly an account of Jonathan Holiff’s relationship with his dad, and never particularly successful as either. Though Jonathan narrates the film, he never establishes himself as a character, talking about his father as a neglectful-but-demanding figure, and letting his father talk about how difficult Jonathan was a son. But curiously, he never shares much of his side of the story, almost as if he expects any viewers watching will already know him. Saul’s tale similarly suffers from an absence of details. The film covers his background, his childhood struggles against anti-Semitism, and his adulthood troubles with alcoholism, but the man himself never comes to life.
Ultimately, My Father And The Man In Black is best when it focuses on the figure at the other end of its title, using Holiff’s records to shed light on Cash’s career. That includes some of the singer’s darkest chapters: a high-profile arrest for drugs, a forest fire he instigated, a divorce, and the ongoing issue of substance abuse that frequently killed Cash’s voice or forced him to cancel concerts—and in one instance, a whole tour. The film portrays Saul as a steadying influence through all this, making apologies behind the scenes, talking to Cash honestly rather than telling him what he wanted to hear, and pushing him into making the Live At Folsom Prison album that would revive his career. The price might have been his own well-being. Though the film stops short of suggesting a cause-and-effect connection, Saul’s alcoholism seems to have escalated the longer he worked for Cash, even after Cash sobered up. In fact, the differences that drove them apart began with Cash’s sobriety, which coincided with his becoming a born-again Christian and stressing his faith on his television show, in his music, and in the 1972 film Gospel Road, a self-financed retelling of Jesus’ life. Though supportive of Cash’s faith, Saul didn’t share it, or believe his stressing of it above all other aspects of his life would be good for his career.
There’s a wealth of information in My Father And The Man In Black, but Holiff’s directorial choices don’t always help in conveying them. His narration sounds inspired as much by Behind The Music specials as his own insights. (“Johnny was so thin, a strong wind could blow him over. And the wind was about to blow.”) But the film’s overactive style is the real distraction. As if scared of boring viewers, Holiff drops low-budget digital enhancements everywhere, animating everything from archival photos to album covers and accompanying trips abroad with an animated plane flying over a 3-D globe. Much of the rest of the film unfolds via reenactments staged by actors, beginning with a depiction of Saul’s suicide and including everything from Cash concerts to court appearances. It’s a weird mishmash of styles, all of which attempt to apply low-budget gloss to a subject that might better have been handled in a much plainer fashion. There’s a real story here, but it’s only occasionally visible behind the busy technique.