Writer/producer/director Jonathan Holiff’s “My Father and The Man in Black” starts out casually as an older man makes the painful decision to end his life; then the story becomes a fascinating mystery.
The older man in question is Saul Holiff, Johnny Cash’s manager – he had been estranged from his son Jonathan for years. Still, when Jonathan goes back to Canada after his father’s death, the shocking discovery of a storage locker owned by his father sends him on a mesmerizing journey to find out just who his dad was.
Hesitant at first, Jonathan (who was named after Johnny, and a successful talent agent and business owner in his own right), dug through years of telegraphs, letters, recorded calls and diaries of Saul’s from his humble beginnings in Canada to the high life in Hollywood – mostly centered around Johnny Cash.
Jonathan discovered that it was Saul who hired June Carter and put her together with Cash; his father also engineered many successes and hits for the singer that took him out of near obscurity and propelled Johnny to become one of the biggest stars of all time.
At the home front, though, it wasn’t such a great deal for Jonathan; Saul verbally abused him and drank constantly. When Saul wasn’t home (which was often), he was away managing Johnny’s career, which was more than a full-time job – especially in the early days when Johnny was taking pills, drinking heavily and coming a few times too close to death’s door.
And there were more crazy times with Johnny – like the time that the singer missed a complete tour and burned down a whole forest – Johnny was actually the first person to be sued for starting a forest fire. He was also arrested for trying to smuggle drugs, and wasn’t allowed to leave the U.S. for a time.
However, it was with Saul’s help that Johnny recorded “Ring of Fire,” which became his first hit record in four years. Finally, Johnny sequestered himself to detox, while Saul pressed him to change producers – he did. Johnny had wanted to record a show in prison for years, and he ended up singing at Folsom Prison, beginning with “Folsom Prison Blues.” It was a huge hit.
Johnny later left his wife Vivian and proposed to June on stage. However, after they honeymooned in Israel, Johnny took a more religious turn, which put off his country western fans.
Meanwhile, Saul was hitting the bottom, basically falling apart – he was drinking more, his stocks were plummeting and he nearly had a nervous breakdown. Still, there were also good times when he and the family (wife Barbara and another son named Joshua) were doing well. They had great cars, travelled overseas and ate fantastic food. And Johnny was making $3 million a year, getting calls from the Pentagon and then-Governor Ronald Reagan, among other well-known people.
Then Johnny took more steps towards becoming more religious and unintentionally distanced himself further from his fans – things fell steadily from there, for both his partnership with Saul and for Johnny’s career.
At the end of the tapes (with one more big surprise tape), there is an outpouring of feeling from Saul, as well as some new answers for his son. The film may have started with a tragedy, but it ends with understanding and redemption, something that Johnny Cash could well have understood.