Providing proof of the power of archival artifacts, “My Father and the Man in Black” is Jonathan Holiff’s documentary about his father, Saul, Johnny Cash’s manager for much of the singer’s checkered career. Holiff Sr.’s extensive audio diaries and taped phone conversations with Cash give authentic voice to the film’s otherwise stodgy re-creations of this true odd couple’s stormy relationship. Plus, legal documents attesting to the weirdness of Saul’s relationship with his son lend poignancy to the now-hackneyed trend of directors making documentaries about their deceased parents. Opening theatrically Sept. 6 after a lengthy fest tour, this uniquely intertwined dual portrait of a country music icon and his Jewish-Canadian promoter should attract ethnically diverse audiences.
Helmer Holiff dramatically opens the film with his father’s suicide. In a color re-creation, a septuagenarian passes in front of a black-and-white-filmed backdrop of a canceled Cash concert, swallows pills and pulls a black plastic bag over his head. Years later, the director, who barely knew his workaholic dad, discovers a storeroom full of tapes, documents, scrapbooks, photographs and gold records, poring over the accumulated materials in theatrically restaged scenes.
As Holiff listens to his father’s taped diary, the story of a symbiotic partnership unfolds. Stand-ins playing Cash and Saul at various stages of their evolution are interspersed with contemporaneous archival footage. Saul recounts how he nudged Cash’s career toward more prestigious, less narrowly “countrified” venues and first brought June Carter into the act.
Superstardom beckoned. Cash co-starred in a Kirk Douglas Western and headlined triumphant world tours that garnered VIP treatment for star and manager alike. But Cash’s runaway success triggered runaway drug abuse, and his subsequent out-of-control behavior, which formed the nucleus of 2005’s “Walk the Line,” is here represented by an actor drunkenly driving down rainswept roads when he’s not being arrested for various crimes and misdemeanors (including starting a forest fire).
Because this is Saul’s story, though, pride of place is given to angry telegrams from canceled bookings, which the promoter had to reimburse. His own career soon tanked, since nobody wanted to hire Mr. No-Show. Paralleling Cash’s downward spiral into addiction, Saul’s drinking escalated, scenes of his restless tossing and turning and non-stop alcohol consumption enacted under audio diary excerpts.
After Cash kicked his habit, Saul proved instrumental in arranging his career-changing Folsom and San Quentin concerts. Saul stuck around for Cash’s subsequent religious rebirth, even accepting the role of Caiaphas, the Jew allegedly responsible for the plot against Christ, in Cash’s self-financed film “Gospel Road.” Meanwhile, he attempted to steer his client away from the non-musical proselytizing that would cost Cash his TV show and much of his fanbase. When the born-again Cash tried to convert his faithful manager, Saul finally quit.
Saul’s memorabilia also attests to matters more personal to the filmmaker, like his oft-repeated desire to spend quality time with his two sons and “toss a ball around.” But an itemized list of every penny spent on Jonathan’s upbringing since birth, used by Saul to justify cashing in the kid’s trust fund, tells a different story.
Documentaries as expressions of filial trauma usually fail to generate audience empathy. But with its posthumous, anguished, first-person confessional revolving around the larger-than-life Man in Black, this one partly transcends its inherent self-indulgence.