NXNE 2012 – My Father and the Man in Black Review (Kirk Haviland)

NXNE 2102

My Father and the Man in Black

Starring Saul Holiff, Jonathan Holiff and Johnny Cash

Written and Directed by Jonathan Holiff

With the plethora of Johnny Cash documentaries and the biopic “Walk the Line” you would wonder if we really need another look at this music icon on film. But My Father and the Man in Black sets itself apart because it’s NOT a film about Johnny Cash but a film about Saul Holiff, Johnny Cash’s long-time manager, the director Jonathan Hollif’s estranged father who he had not talked to for the last 20 years of Saul’s life, leading up to his suicide in 2005. What we get, in the words of the director, is essentially a slickly produced home movie about the father he barely knew and the life he led that his sons knew next to nothing about.

We start with a re-enactment of Saul’s suicide with the help of some pills and a garbage bag. We then are introduced to our Director/Narrator Jonathan Holiff as he packs up his company and moves back to his parent’s place in Nanaimo, British Columbia. After dealing with constant calls from Johnny Cash fanatics looking for memorabilia and journalists looking for a story, Jonathan’s mother reveals that Saul has held a storage locker for over 30 years and there may be answers to everyone’s questions within. After multiple failed attempts to open the locker, gathering the emotional impact in check, Jonathan opens the locker to reveal stacks and stacks of filing boxes with paperwork, files, gold records and other memorabilia. But the most important discoveries are the boxes of tapes that represent Saul’s audio diary that goes through his entire life in Saul’s own words. We are introduced to Saul from his early producer days after serving in World War 2 in both Los Angeles and back in his native London, Ontario. It’s through his concert productions back in London, that he put together, that Saul first met the man who would impact the rest of his life, professionally and personally, Johnny Cash. The Cash that we get here is shown warts and all, just like Saul. Jonathan does not pull back in any way on either man. The film follows the ups and downs of Cash and Saul’s tumultuous relationship with all the drugs issues and missed performances in which Saul would always have to cover up for Cash. Meanwhile at home we see Saul treat his wife and children like his talent, barking out orders and constantly demanding more while tearing a strip off Jonathan on a constant daily basis. Ultimately Saul ends up quitting and walking away as Cash ignores his advice about the direction his career should be going in. Decades later the men reconcile over the phone, but they never saw each other again. Jonathan comes to some different conclusions about who his father was by the end of the film.

One of the finest documentaries I’ve seen this year, My Father and the Man in Black delivers both a powerfully impactful family story and a rarely seen side of Cash’s story. Much like this year’s also brilliant Marley, we are treated, in every sense of that word, to a lot of never before seen documents and footage from the touring days of Cash, most seen from the unique view of Saul. Director Jonathan Holiff uses many techniques to tell the story: aside from the aforementioned re-enactments in which his younger brother Joshua plays their father he also uses animated photographs, slick editing and vocal recordings to guide the film along. What we end up with is both an important historical document and a riveting family story.

My Father and the Man in Black is just starting out on its journey as NXNE marked its Canadian Premiere and it’s only been shown a handful of times before. This one should be a staple of the festival circuit for the rest of the year and it’s definitely something everyone should keep an eye out for. My Father and the Man in Black is a strong recommend and with the massive amount of extra footage planned for the Blu-Ray/DVD release it’s going to be a must buy when released.

Till Next Time,

Movie Junkie TO

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