My Father and the Man in Black: movie offers unique look at Johnny Cash

science | Sep 03, 2013 | By Martin Barillas

Walk the Line, a 2005 Oscar-winning film portrayal of the life of American singer Johnny Cash, only added to the mystery and misinformation about one of music’s legends. A new movie, which weaves together documentary footage with dramatizations, paints a more complete portrait of the oft-troubled singer. My Father and the Man in Black, which was written, produced, and directed by Jonathan Holiff, is a film that will interest music buffs and observers of American culture. Holiff is the son of Saul Holiff, Johnny Cash’s manager throughout the 60s and early 70s. The elder Holiff was with Cash throughout the singer’s years of drinking and pill-popping, handled his divorce from his first wife, and introduced him to June Carter – Cash’s second wife.
 
Saul Holiff committed suicide just six months before the Walk the Line biopic was released, leaving no note.  But during the month of the movie starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, son Jonathan opened his father’s storage locker. It was there that he got a glimpse into the shared lives of Saul Holiff and Johnny Cash as they careened through the singer’s singular career.
 
Holiff’s relationship with his father was cold and distant. The film asks ‘What if your father is not who you think he was?” while it uses the elder Holiff’s recorded diary, documentary footage, period photographs and other materials to put Saul’s life in perspective.
 
“This is the anti-‘Walk the Line,’ the anti-Hollywood story,” Holiff told FOX News, while promising that the revelations in the movie may shock viewers. “ Johnny was the original bad boy,” he said.
 
The younger Holiff was nine years old when his mother took him on his first Johnny Cash tour. His rare glimpses of his father came during the times he was pulled out of school to take a plane with his parents to Johnny Cash concerts. Saul Holiff was cold and distant with his son. Jonathan resented Cash for “taking his father away,” even while in his eyes the country crooner was akin to a caped super-hero.
 
Cash struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction for years before becoming a born-again Christian in 1971. It was soon thereafter that Holiff, an atheist of Jewish origins, and the cleaned-up Cash parted ways. Cash harangued Holiff about religion, thus souring their relationship.
 
The core of the film, however, is the flawed relationship between Saul Holiff and Holiff's son Jonathan, who were estranged for 20 years. Saul is depicted as an autocratic father who ran his household like a business. Jonathan Holiff's purpose in making the film became a search for his father and the cause of his suicide. Journalists deluged the younger Holiff with questions about the suicide and the reasons for the breakup with Cash. By reviewing the audiotapes left by his father, Holiff gained an appreciation of his father's personal struggles during a time of great cultural and political change, as well as a frenetic tour schedule.  
 
Holiff relies on the 60 hours of audio diaries and taped phone conversations left by his father to flesh out he life and times of the elder Holiff in the 1960s and '70s.  “I learned that not only was he self-aware, but that he was endlessly berating himself and considered himself a failure as a parent, as a husband, as a man, as a businessman, and it was shocking.”
 
The making of the film allowed Holiff to make peace with his father. In an interview with the Jewish Journal, Holiff said “I like to describe this movie as a universal story of fathers and sons, estranged parents and siblings, and dysfunctional families, disguised as a Johnny Cash movie." Holiff now sees both Johnny Cash and his father as flawed human beings. While the film is frank about the drug demons that afflicted Cash, Holiff also notes that the course of Cash's life illustrates the Christian theme of redemption.
 
My Father and the Man in Black opens on September 9.

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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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