I think it’s fair to say that Jonathan Holiff had a difficult relationship with his father. Often rocky and filled with long absences and frequent conflict, the two had not spoken for many years at time of Saul Holiff’s death. For those of you who may not know, Saul Holiff was Johnny Cash’s business manager from 1958 to 1973 and was the engine behind some of Cash’s most notable successes. What you also may not know is that without Saul Holiff, Cash would likely never have become the icon he is today, and certainly, his career would not have survived his off-stage antics.
So when Jonathan Holiff got the call about his father’s suicide, he made the trek home to Canada where he began to sort through a genuinely staggering amount of Johnny Cash memorabilia. Finding a life-long audio diary, Holiff began to slowly uncover the man Saul was; the man he never knew. The film My Father and the Man in Black is the result of that journey, and while it doesn’t meet the definition of documentary in the traditional sense, Holiff has created a film that works through his tumultuous feelings about his relationship with Saul, while also examining the challenges he faced as a father, a manager and a man.
While I have never been a fan of the sub-genre of documentaries in which people “work through their issues” while making a film, My Father and the Man in Black dances the line nearly perfectly and the result is what can only be described as the love child of The Thin Blue Line and My Winnipeg, except it’s all true and told in Saul’s own words. Holiff keeps much of what appeared to be an extremely complex relationship with a great deal of resulting pain off the screen, instead using his journey to discover who his father was as the through-line for the story of the film. The audience benefits significantly from this because while he is discovering his father, we get to discover the equally complex relationship between Saul and Cash.
My Father and the Man in Black is a story that needed to be told, not only because Jonathan Holiff needed to tell it, but because it’s easy to forget that behind every great icon, there’s someone who supported them and those people are often much more interesting than the man in the spotlight. The film has its Canadian premiere at NXNE this week and is a must-see for the festival, for Cash fans, and for anyone who’s ever had a father. So, yes, that’s everyone.
My Father and the Man in Black screens on Friday, June 15, 2012 at 7:00 pm at the Toronto Underground Cinema and Sunday, June 17, 2012 at 2:30 pm at the NFB Mediatheque. Check the NXNE festival website for details and tickets.