Jonathan Holiff’s engaging debut, My Father and the Man in Black (2012), benefits greatly from its third party storytelling, as he strives to discover what drove his father, Saul – the former manager of country legend Johnny Cash – to suicide. Holiff instantly sets a bleak tone by depicting a man chasing handfuls of pills with vodka and taping a plastic bag around his head before lying down to die. This acts as an invite into the point of Holiff’s quest, as it is soon revealed that a recent discovery of a significant amount of recordings, clippings and photographs had inspired Holiff’s decision to re-connect with his late father.
We’re informed early on of the two types of father, both arguably equal in bad parenting terms, that Jonathan grew up with – one a distant, neglectful man who was barely home (Jonathan thought his father was Cash when he was little), the other a demanding and overly critical dictator who pushed disappointed notes under Jonathan’s bedroom door. It’s interesting how the perception of Saul gradually changes throughout the film however, as more and more details of Saul’s background and his relationship with his most successful act come to light, and the audience gain unique access into the challenges of managing a man like Cash.
The central, male-orientated themes of My Father and the Man in Black concern isolation, the fragile ego, the pressures of providing and the complexities of a father-son relationship when paternal instincts do not come naturally. On paper, Cash and Saul Holiff were words apart, but their turbulent relationship is somewhat beautiful when it becomes obvious they battled similar demons, particularly the experience of being raised by a cold, callous father, a cycle that Saul sadly couldn’t break. With Jonathan having been granted access to hours of Saul’s taped phone calls with Cash or recorded memoirs from Saul himself, it’s these recordings that are the most poignant aspects of the film, particularly when Johnny is speaking.
When played across the development of his erratic career span and self-destructive tendencies, the fragility detected in his raspy southern drawl perfectly befits one’s expectations. The strengths of this documentary lie in the story itself, and it’s clear that Holiff is a natural storyteller. He is not an engaging narrator however, and his delivery is often monotone and expressionless. His utterances are thoughtful but flat. Similarly, the reconstructions are out of joint with the tone of the documentary, are not enjoyable to watch and do not strike any emotional chords like the photos, letters or voice clips manage to do.
It may come across as rather a self-indulgent film when one has to summarise the content, but the conclusions Jonathan draws are widely relatable and it was clearly a very cathartic journey to undertake. Cash and Carter fans will enjoy the behind-the-scenes look into their lives, but ultimately Holiff’s My Father and the Man in Black goes beyond mere fan culture to explore a variety of themes that underpin human masculinity.