With no disrespect intended to any ladies reading this, it’s been said that no story carries the emotional impact of a story about the relationship between a father and his son. From the days of the Bible and mythology, countless stories have used that relationship as a basis for emotional conflict, from fantasy films like Star Wars and Field of Dreams to biographical films like Walk the Line. Indeed, it is because of that last film that the documentary MY FATHER AND THE MAN IN BLACK exists.
This documentary is about Saul Holiff, who served as Johnny Cash’s manager from 1960 to 1973. Saul Holiff, who committed suicide several years ago because he was suffering from a terminal illness, had an estranged relationship with his son Jonathan Holiff – Jonathan confesses, “I knew more about my father from his obituary than from the man himself.” Shortly before the release of the successful Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, Jonathan quit his unsatisfying job as a successful Hollywood agent and moved back in with his mother. While living with her they were bombarded with calls from Cash fans looking for memorabilia in the wake of Cash’s resurgence in popularity. Jonathan’s mother revealed to him that his father had left a storage locker filled with a treasure trove of information and mementos regarding his time managing Cash. This documentary chronicles Jonathan’s discovery of who his father really was through what he finds in the locker.
Jonathan Holiff has a great story to tell about this relationship to his father and his father’s relationship to Johnny Cash. However — and I know this might sound odd — I don’t think Jonathan Holiff was the right filmmaker to tell this story. While Jonathan was an extremely successful Hollywood agent and television producer, that doesn’t necessarily translate to filmmaking skill. Since Jonathan is undergoing a very personal journey with this documentary it makes sense that he serves writer, director, and producer of the film, but several questionable creative decisions really hurt the final product.
For instance, perhaps my least favorite technique in documentaries is shooting narrative-style recreations of true events. It not only seems false to me, but it begs the question of why the filmmakers didn’t choose one style or the other. It appears that Holiff has spent a lot of money shooting narrative recreations of his father’s interactions with Cash with lookalike actors in their places. But why? Saul Holiff’s story is fascinating on its own and is told through incredible archival photos, film clips, and, most of all, audio recordings. These are historical documents that uncover untold aspects of the life of one of country music’s most iconic figures (or two if you count Cash’s wife June Carter). I would have liked to have seen more authenticity and less awkward recreations.
Regardless of that poor choice in technique, Holiff discovers deep emotional connections and parallels with the father he previously wanted nothing to do with, and learns that his father’s chief flaw was trying to manage his family life like he managed Cash.
Though MY FATHER AND THE MAN IN BLACK has won several awards and generally positive reviews at numerous film festivals, I can’t help but think it would have been a much better documentary if it took a different creative direction. Cash fans will enjoy it more than most (even if he doesn’t get the most glowing portrayal), but others will probably want to pass.
RATING 2 out of 5 : See it … At Your Own Risk