My Father and the Man in Black

My Father and the Man in Black

DVD - 2013
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The only inside look at 'bad boy' Johnny Cash, as seen through the eyes of his longtime manager, Saul Holiff, the man who put Johnny together with June. Following his father's suicide, director Jonathan Holiff discovers hundreds of letters and audio diaries, including secretly recorded phone calls with Johnny Cash during his crazed pill-fueled 1960s jags, triumphs at Folsom and San Quentin, wedding to June Carter, and his conversion in the early 1970s to old-time religion.
Publisher: [United States] : Passion River Films, 2013.
Characteristics: 1 videodisc (88 min.) : sd., col. ; 4 3/4 in.


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Oct 04, 2015

This made-for-TV movie, written, produced, and directed by Jonathan Holiff, will be of interest to both fans of Johnny Cash and those who'd like to know what goes on in the mind of an aloof father. Holiff was alienated from and angry with his father, Saul Holiff of London, Ontario, who was both emotionally and physically absent during much of Jonathan's childhood. Saul killed himself, without leaving so much as a note. Jonathan's mother then gave him the key to a storage locker packed with memorabilia from Saul Holliff's years managing Johnny Cash, including letters, taped phone calls, and diaries on tape. As Jonathan searched for his true father, he found a complex and thoughtful man. Viewers learn a great deal about two highly successful but disturbed men, Saul Holiff and Johnny Cash.

Considerable cheesy footage of actors who bear only slight resemblances to John and June is balanced by archival material of the real people. (David James, the man dubbing Cash's voice is excellent.) Using old media, the movie shows the extent of amphetamine abuse on Cash's life in a way that the dramatic film, "Walk The Line," couldn't. Amphetamines, once prescribed as diet pills, speed up one's metabolism and kill the appetite, as is apparent in photos of a gaunt, boney Cash, 6' 2" and 150 pounds while in his thirties. His emotional suffering is apparent in his letters and phone calls. However, films and books about drug-addled performers would be enriched by brief explanations of the effects of the drugs. For instance, amphetamines, also known as "speed", produce exhilaration and a lack of ability to sleep, followed by miserable "crash" periods, when one wants more speed, as the body slows down. The heightened "fight or flight" effect of the drug leads to paranoia, resulting in distrust of one's friends. Continual use scrambles one's logic. Often a volatile personality is due as much to drugs as to a performer's innate personality.

"My Father and The Man in Black" has many failings, mainly because of the low-budget quality of the film and the fact that movie-making was a new venture for Jonathan Holiff. A straightforward documentary would have been better. Still, the basic story of Jonathan's search for his father is compelling. We viewers also learn a great deal about Cash, especially the depths of both his self-destruction and his commitment to Christianity, which was not always good for his career or his relations with his Jewish manager. The extras, deleted scenes, aren't necessary, but further illustrate Cash's self-destructive behaviour. In the end, we learn that Saul Holiff was a very different man than the father his sons saw, but I'm reminded of the (east Indian?) proverb, "No success is so great as to compensate for failure at home." The movie won't be everyone's cup of tea, but if you're interested in either Johnny Cash or emotionally distant fathers, it's worth watching.


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