It’s a weird miracle that Johnny Cash and his primitive twosome banged out music that still feels so full and vital today. And it’s a weird miracle that My Father and the Man in Black—an extraordinary documentary that hits New York this week without a distribution deal— is itself full and vital, despite throwing off all sorts of vanity-project warning signs: It’s directed by a first-timer with a personal stake in the story. It tells much of that story through green-screened reenactments in which actors play the father of that director and no one less a personage than Cash himself, that hopped-up oak of a man. It even opens with a reel-to-reel playing back a conversation between the director, age seven, and his father. But, as Cash might say, it has the heart, and it has the blood, and by the time childhood chatter is played back again, feeling is soaked through it like the sweat in Cash’s guitar strap.
Here’s the deal: Writer/director Jonathan Holiff is the not-quite-estranged son of Saul Holiff, Cash’s manager during what could be called the interesting years: the pill-fueled sixties, the triumphs at Folsom and San Quentin, the wedding to June Carter, and the conversion, in the early ’70s, to the fundamentalism that wrecked Cash’s career even as it saved him. After Holiff the elder’s suicide in 2005, Holiff the younger discovers a storage locker crammed with Cash arcana, including the gold record for “A Boy Named Sue,” revelatory recordings of 40-plus-year-old phone conversations between Cash and Saul, and Saul’s own audio diaries. We get the highs and lows straight from Saul, with some visual aid from those reenactments, which—shot by Rene Ohashi—turn out to be brisk and exciting. First comes the thrill of turning Cash into a bigger and better act in the early ’60s: It’s Saul who pairs June and Johnny and urges his star to rise out of civic centers and risk Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. Then comes the dark period fetishized in Walk the Line, all no-shows and arrests and poor Saul hustling to make good to outraged promoters. Once Cash kicks, and June and he catch the old-time religion, the happy ending never quite arrives. Cash goes all-in for Jesus, losing his TV show and becoming alienated from fans of his bestselling prison records—and Saul, a Canadian Jew who is unwilling to say to his client “I accept the divinity of Jesus Christ.” One long phone call concerning Cash’s ill-fated Jesus movie is almost painful. The great man, you’ll hear, could also be pushy and insecure, and he wasn’t entirely free of the suspicions common to other white folks born in Arkansas in 1932.
That’s story enough for a movie—and much more than Walk the Line bothered with—but My Father and the Man in Black is as much about family as it is about showbiz craziness. The story of Saul and Cash is thrilling, and the story of Saul and the son he never really knew richens it at every turn.