Micromanager, by Sarah Brinks
For people in my generation if you say, “The man in black” there is a good chance they would think you were making a Princess Bride reference. For my parents generation there was only one “Man in Black”: Johnny Cash. My Father and the Man in Black is about the man behind the “Man in Black,” his manager for the majority of his career, Saul Holiff. Holiff’s son Jonathan made this documentary after his father’s suicide and subsequent discovery of a storage locker full of memorabilia and an audio diary spanning more then twenty years of a career managing Johnny Cash. Jonathan had known his father to be a cold, commanding, drinker who was rarely happy or loving. The discovery of the storage locker showed Jonathan a whole new side of his father and gave him answers to life long questions about his estranged father.
Holiff had been a pivotal part of launching Cash to stardom and was the man who paired Cash with June Carter (whom he also managed). He was there for Cash’s darkest days when he was addicted to pills and alcohol. He covered Cash’s losses for canceled shows due to substance abuse, discovered him near death after an overdose, and also shared in the benefits when Cashes career was at an all-time high with his album, At Folsom Prison.
My Father and the Man in Black paints an intimate portrait of a man full of self-doubt and unhappiness. Jonathan doesn’t pull any punches when he describes his dad. He wasn’t a happy man and Jonathan and his bother were happier when he wasn’t around. After leaving home as an adult he barely spoke to his father. His dad’s diary chronicles his struggle with alcohol and gambling. It also chronicles the best of times when Cash was at his career high and the money was rolling in for everyone who had hitched their wagon to Cash. One thing that Holiff speaks about at length in his diary is how he wishes he were a better father. Holiff’s father had not been a loving father and Holiff in turn struggled to show love to his children. He admits that even hearing the word “love” made him uncomfortable. Jonathan’s mother, Barbara, admits that her husband treated the kids like adults all their lives, even going so far as to draw up contracts with them about things like their grades. Barbara said, “He managed his children”.
The documentary is about forty percent reenactments and about sixty percent still photos and archived footage. Initially I really didn’t like the reenactments but I got on board quickly. It was good to have something to fill the gaps when no archive footage or photos exist. The most unfortunate thing about the film is Jonathan Holiff’s narration. He always sounds like he is reading a script, which in turn gives the film a very rote feeling. You would think since he lived a lot of this story himself that he could speak naturally about it. That is the one major criticism of the film; the fact that it is constant throughout the film is unfortunate.
Holiff’s audio diary is full of details about Cash and his career but it is also full of Holiff’s thoughts and his personal struggles. Biopics like Walk the Line are interesting and semi-truthful but My Father and the Man in Black tells the good, bad, and ugly. I learned a lot about Cash from the film. I didn’t realize how serious his drug addition was and how much it affected his ability to tour. Jonathan explores Cash’s religious feeling and actions and how his religious fanaticism in his later career led to the eventual split with Holiff.
The documentary is underscored by the best of Johnny Cash’s albums. Anyone who is a Cash fan will enjoy hearing his songs and private recordings and thoughts. Even with the distracting narration My Father and the Man in Black is a well made documentary with details about both Saul Holiff and Johnny Cash that until now were lost to the annals of time.