You Don’t Know the Real Johnny Cash


“It wasn’t the drugs and arrests and no-shows that broke Saul and Johnny up,” says Jonathan Holiff, the son of Saul Holiff, the manager of Johnny Cash in the 1960s and early ’70s, a time that included the prison LPs, the jail stays, and Cash’s reawakened fundamentalism. “It was an ideological battle that really tore the relationship apart.”

If you thought Walk the Line was as accurate about Johnny Cash’s life as Valley of the Dolls was about Judy Garland’s (and as unintentionally funny), you might want to pile your hair into a pompadour and catch My Father and the Man in Black. In this riveting, excoriating documentary (opening October 7 at the Quad Cinema) director Jonathan Holiff re-creates the relationship between Cash and manager Saul Holiff, Jonathan’s driven, distant dad, who committed suicide in 2005. This agonizing story, which mixes various film stocks, recorded phone calls between Cash and Saul, and some filmed re-creations, gets all the nasty Cash stuff right. The drugs, the divorces, even—gulp—hints of anti-Semitism. But despite its official story, the doc is really about Jonathan’s tortured relationship with his frosty dad. And how, in death, father and son achieved a reconciliation they couldn’t find while both were living.

In his quietly explosive film, Holiff limns two stories. Yet they reflect each other, like a pair of mercilessly honest mirrors. There is the tale of a father “who didn’t love or respect me.” And there’s the narrative of Saul—a Canadian Jew—and Johnny making it to the top together and then breaking up their partnership.

The story comes courtesy of a storage locker that Saul kept, full of his taped Cash musings, phone conversations, and letters, which gave his troubled son some insight into his dead-eyed progenitor. Holiff’s movie is poetic. But unlike Biography Channel bullshit, this is “no hagiography.” No Johnny Cash’s America, with spuds like Al Gore pontificating about a man they didn’t know. Here, Cash comes across as weak, crazy, strung out, funny, philandering, and freaking authentic.

“What started this movie was people calling after Walk the Line,” Holiff says. “They said, ‘Managers don’t quit superstars; ‘they get fired!’ But Saul did. It was ideological, not just religious. For instance, Saul refused to go to the White House with Johnny because he was anti-American and anti-Nixon.” More troubling is the rift that ultimately sundered the partnership: Saul couldn’t accept Jesus as his personal savior, as Cash famously did. In the film, we hear phone recordings of Cash pressing Saul about his perceived lack of dedication to a movie and album project in which Cash travels Israel and retells the Gospels.

I asked Holiff, if, as the film suggests, Cash was anti-Semitic.

“It was naive anti-Semitism. The only Jews these guys ever met were at some trading post in some small town in Arkansas. It was really just being a good ol’ boy. If Saul was just a money-hungry Jew, why did he quit Johnny when he was making a fortune?”

Perhaps the most riveting part of the film is a long phone conversation between Johnny and Saul about Cash’s biopic about the life of Jesus that was released in 1971. It’s as tense as a scene from Fail-Safe. Cash wants to do the movie. Saul tells him he will offend the Muslims and Jews in his fan base. And that “too many people tell you what you want to hear.” It might be the very moment that breaks up this odd couple.

Mark Stielper, the Cash historian selected by the star’s family, found himself moved by Holiff’s film. “I was there when Jonathan started on that journey. It was a torturous road,” he says. “He was searching for himself. Or for his father and himself. This is a story of a father and a son. The Cash connection is the hook. But it is a very profound story. I found it heart wrenching, and yet Jonathan took great pains not to make it heart wrenching. He tried to make it dispassionate.”

The re-creations of early Johnny, shot by Rene Ohashi, are vibrantly choreographed. Here’s the pilled-up Cash, onstage in socks, ever the wildass rockabilly cat. But it’s the emotion of Holiff’s forging a bond in death with a father he didn’t have in life that gives the movie its heart. Saul Holiff, ultimately, was a broken man. One who made his son sign contracts at home, stopped talking to him, slipped letters under the boy’s door.

The younger Holiff, who was an agent himself, didn’t learn the business just to show his father he could be “more successful than you ever could be.” He’s also using his knowledge to market the film shrewdly.

“We’re using no distributor on purpose,” he emphasized. “We hope our success on the film-festival circuit will translate into a better deal than if we went hat in hand to XYZ distribution. I wanted to bring the film to market myself!”

I asked Holiff if this excavation into his father’s life, reading his letters, listening to his phone calls, was a catharsis. Or is that just something that happens in movies? “It was extremely cathartic,” he says. “I did forgive my father and reconcile with his memory. Having said that, I’m a realist. There are no fairy-tale endings.”

In his own polite, Canadian way, Holiff ended our conversation with a hard-won moral.

“There was nothing special about my childhood,” he says. “I got to make this movie mostly because there’s a star attached. But I tell everyone, if you haven’t reconciled with that parent of yours, do it now. Because you won’t find a storage locker with 60 hours of audio diaries like I did. If I hadn’t found that locker, I’d probably be dead by now. After Saul killed himself and didn’t leave a note, I expected that any day a letter would arrive saying he loved me. I never got Saul’s love when he was alive. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to get it now that he was dead. After Saul’s suicide, I was planning my own exit. This movie saved my life.”

My Father and the Man in Black premieres at the Quad on October 7. It will also be playing at the Tucson Music and Film Festival on October 13.