My Father and the Man in Black is a deeply personal film for the writer and director Jonathan Holiff, and it documents how Jonathan learned about his estranged father via a cache of history left in a storage locker. Adding intrigue to the film is the fact that Jonathan’s father is Saul Holiff – the manager to the late Johnny Cash. Regrettably, the film comes off a little too personal, deluging audiences in information that could only be truly appreciated by someone close to the story. For die-hard Johnny Cash fans, however, this is a treasure trove of new details to consume.
Jonathan Holiff didn’t really know his father, Saul. The memories Jonathan does have of his father aren’t pleasant. Saul wasn’t around much for Jonathan’s formative years, because Saul was always on the road as the manager to Johnny Cash. So when Saul committed suicide in 2005 without leaving a note, the void in Jonathan’s life seemed as though it would never be filled. But then his mother produced a key to a storage locker that Jonathan never knew existed. When he finally opened it, he found decades of untouched history, detailing both The Man in Black and, more importantly, Saul Holiff.
The concept behind My Father and the Man in Black is extremely compelling – a son struggling to connect with his father, who, in his time, struggled to connect with a superstar. The film misses its mark, however, in that it mostly just follows Saul, which is appropriate, but does little to connect Jonathan to the revelations. So while there are plenty of details about Saul’s interaction with Johnny Cash – most of it engrossing – a good portion of the film is spent focused entirely on Saul that feels disconnected from Jonathan or Cash, which is only barely interesting. There’s just not enough of Jonathan in the film to support his portion in the story. The documentary would be better served If audiences could discover Saul with Jonathan, learning a bit about Saul and then seeing how Jonathan synthesized it, but that only rarely happens.
The presentation of the film is hit or miss. At times it is absolutely beautiful. The special effects team did a marvelous job with the old photographs Jonathan provided, lifting the foreground of the images to give the illusion of depth. Sometimes the images are animated just slightly, bringing otherwise static content to incredible life. David James also turns in a fantastic performance as the voice of Johnny Cash, lending his talent for letters and other material from Cash that must be read aloud to the audience. Other times, however, the film simply can’t hide its warts. Early on there are some blue screen effects that are bad to the point of distraction, but most glaring is the narration by Jonathan Holiff throughout the film. While he does his best, and audiences will get used to it over time, it’s definitely not up to par with the rest of the film. To highlight this point, even Jonathan Holiff felt the need to apologize for his voiceover when he presented the film at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival recently.
My Father and the Man in Black is different from most documentaries in that it reenacts and dramatizes the majority of the content. So while Jonathan discovered his father’s storage locker years ago, audiences get to watch him open it and delve into its contents “for the first time”. It isn’t the best experience, but audiences will acclimate. Some editing is definitely in order for many of the reenactments, however, like most of the scenes that play back Saul’s Dictaphone recordings in their entirety. Audiences have to sit there and watch an actor lip-syncing into a microphone the whole time.
My Father and the Man in Black was a great idea, but the execution is flawed in many parts. For a film that’s meant to be about genuine human connection, it feels rather sterile and manufactured. It’s missing the personal touch that direct interviews bring to a film like this. These criticisms notwithstanding, however, My Father and the Man in Black is a competent film obviously crafted with love, care and attention that is worth a look, especially for fans of Johnny Cash.