The man behind the Man in Black is (almost) revealed in this playful, if flawed investigative doc.
A black screen peels back to reveal a packed and unruly auditorium circa 1965. Anticipation precedes anarchy as Johnny 'No Show' Cash lives up to the nickname bestowed upon him during his turbulent, now legendary career. What happens next indicates that this is no ordinary musical biopic. The abrupt suicide of an elderly man invades the screen, revealed to be Saul Holiff — Cash’s long time confidante and manager.
My Father and the Man in Black turns its attention away from Cash’s well publicised woes to the lesser known story of the troubled Saul Holiff as seen from the perspective of his son, the film’s writer/director Jonathan Holiff. This ancestral anecdote charts the uneasy relationship between himself and his late father as he attempts to uncover the hidden depths of Saul’s relationship with Cash and explore the reasons behind his father’s recent suicide.
Described as an act of "personal archaeology", the film acts as Jonathan’s very own ‘Who do you think you are?’ as he revisits his father’s past to question how Saul’s obsession with Cash led to the subsequent demise of his relationship with his own son. The extent of Saul’s physical and emotional absence is at times moving, at others, simply incredulous.
Alongside this curious love triangle, the film provides interesting insights into Cash’s glory days: from his triumphant smash hit show at the Hollywood Bowl to his spiral into addiction, arrest and numerous clashes with Saul. Excerpts from Saul’s diary chart his exhausting existence managing Cash’s troubled tour of 1965, the ostensible pinnacle of the latter's success, in which Saul survived on a diet of damage limitation in his attempts to control the unpredictable, elusive Cash.
Mixing archive footage and real artefacts but incorporating more dramatic reconstructions than a whole season of Crimewatch, My Father and the Man In Black certainly doesn’t walk the line (ahem) in terms of a traditional documentary style that's clearly influenced by pioneering docfather, Errol Morris.
While these fictional re-enactments add a visually arresting cinematic dimension to the film, they are unimaginative to say the least. Unnecessarily hammy reconstructions depict the blindingly obvious, such as a depressed Saul swigging from a whisky bottle to infer his descent into alcoholism. They add little depth to film’s central thesis and perhaps mask a lack of footage or worse, storytelling nous. Occasional archival gems such as an impromptu backstage jam between Cash and Bob Dylan provide insightful glimpses into Cash’s clearly intoxicating demeanour. Saul Holiff however, remains a mystery unsolved.
Strapped for Cash? This film promises new insights on the man himself.
An edu-taining watch.
An old dog. Some new tricks.