Today: May 22, 2024

My Father and The Man in Black

When The Man Comes Around. Again.

When you next watch Walk The Line, Hollywood’s schlock-gloss of the life and times of Johnny Cash, keep your eyes open for Saul Holiff.

Cash’s manager for 13 years, Holiff was there for the bookings and the no-shows, the divorce and the marriage, the arrests and the trials. He was there for the worst of times, and he was there in the best of times – at Folsom, for A Boy Named Sue, for the post-pills TV show.

You won’t see Holiff while Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon play dress-up. He’s absent from that version of country music’s most marketable tale. As he was, for 20 years, from the life of his son Jonathan Holiff who has written and directed My Father and the Man in Black in an attempt to make sense of his alcoholic, distant old man. In doing so, he paints a more nuanced and interesting picture of Cash than did Phoenix, Witherspoon, James Mangold and the Walk The Line crew.

Holiff’s tale begins with the death of his father, described subtly in his obituary as having come at a time of his own choosing. The son travels home to bury the father he hasn’t seen in two decades, and finds a treasure trove of memorabilia, audio tapes and more that had been kept in a lock-up.

Holiff trawls through the stash to try to find out why his father was so distant, why he hadn’t left a note and, crucially, whether there was any paternal love there.

And what treasures there are – the gold disc for A Boy Named Sue, diaries detailing Cash’s mid-60s no-shows, audio diaries recounting the Man in Black’s addictions and demons (which are much, much worse than the ‘oh Johnny, you’ve been on them pills again’ approach of Walk The Line) and, remarkably, recorded telephone calls between Holiff Sr. and Cash himself.

The stories are retold through archive footage, voice-over and reconstructions that utilise various actors playing various Holiffs, Cashs, Carter Cashs and others at various stages of their lives.

Not all these actors are professionals – Saul Holiff is played by another of his sons and one of his nephews, with an emphasis on looks rather than acting prowess. The effect can be a little disconcerting but because these are intercut with archive photos and the like it keeps the continuity ticking along. And there’s the music, of course.

My Father and the Man in Black tries to be many things in its 89 minutes, and succeeds in some better than others. As an examination of the relationship between Cash and Saul Holiff it works – the latter’s excision from Walk The Line becomes more baffling the greater our knowledge of his key role in the former’s career.

The viewer will care less about the Holiff family story but there’s a broader cautionary tale being told here about father-son connections which may give pause for thought for some.

Ultimately though we find out that, unsurprisingly, Holiff Sr. was absent from his son’s life so often because he was there for Cash’s bookings and the no-shows, the divorce and the marriage, the arrests and the trials.

Jonathon Holiff followed in his father’s footsteps by forging a career of his own in Hollywood publicity. Saul Holiff’s working relationship with Cash ended with the latter’s spiritual rebirth in the early 1970s and, after he was cast as Caiaphas, the accuser of Jesus, in Cash’s ludicrous vanity movie Gospel Road, the two would barely talk again. Ain’t life a cryin’ shame?

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