My Father and the Man in Black: Film Review

Imperfect doc offers an interesting angle on Johnny Cash's career.

The son of Johnny Cash's longtime manager searches for meaning in journals of their time together.

The latest in the growing genre of My Famous Father documentaries, Jonathan Holiff's My Father and the Man in Black falls victim to some of the category's now-familiar pitfalls: It assumes we'll be as invested in old family dramas as the director is; it never stops to ask what the private story has to do with the public one. Still, the film offers a privileged perspective on crucial moments in Johnny Cash's career, and serious fans will likely warm to it on the small screen.

Supplying his own narration in a voice that overplays his script's emotions, Holiff explains that he was estranged from his father for decades before 2005, when Saul Holiff killed himself. The father, who had been distant and cold to his son, left no suicide note, but he did leave behind a storage locker crammed with evidence of a life Jonathan never knew.

Most interesting in this find is a trove of audiotaped journals -- a day-to-day account of years the elder Holiff spent as Cash's manager. Playing some, Jonathan transports us to the time in which an in-demand Cash could sell out arenas but couldn't be relied upon to show up, or would take the stage only to croak through tunes with a drug-damaged voice.

Drawing on many biographical sources (and also using more, and more stylized, re-enactment material than is necessary), the film goes back to the start of the Cash/Holiff partnership: The young Canadian entrepreneur booked the singer for a gig at his drive-in in 1958, then wound up managing him through the height of his stardom. It was Holiff, we're told, who suggested hiring June Carter for that fateful Big D Jamboree in Dallas; it was Holiff who handled divorce paperwork when the Cash/Carter romance ended the singer's first marriage.

Letters back and forth capture manager and star in an intimate, friendly partnership, one that grew strained as Cash became more preachy about his Christian faith. When networks refused to fund a Christmas special about the life of Jesus, Cash made it himself, casting his Jewish manager as one of the priests involved in the crucifixion.

Along with an explanation for the partnership's dissolution, Holiff finds tapes in which his father subjects himself to as much harsh scrutiny as he ever did his sons, concluding that he was a failure as a father and mulling the pros and cons of suicide. It's poignant stuff, but badly integrated with the showbiz biography surrounding it.

Production Companies: Intentionally Left Blank, New Chapter Productions
Director-Screenwriter: Jonathan Holiff
Producers: Jonathan Holiff, Tanya Lyn Nazarec, Jennifer Phillips
Executive producer: Jeff Paikin
Production designer: Adam Weir
Music: Michael Timmins
Costume designer: Robyn Rosenberg
Editors: Rob Ruzic, Nick Harauz
No rating, 89 minutes