Film sheds light on Johnny Cash’s Jewish manager

Saul Holiff and Johnny Cash in a business discussion, circa 1968 [Photo courtesy of the Saul Holiff Collection]

It was never easy managing Johnny Cash, but it was even harder for a Jew from London, Ont.

The story of the country music legend’s rise, fall and resurrection as a born-again Christian while being managed by his increasingly reluctant Canadian Jewish manager, Saul Holiff, will première as a feature-length documentary film this weekend.

My Father and the Man in Black makes its Canadian première on June 15 at the Toronto Underground Cinema (186 Spadina Ave.) at the North by Northeast (NXNE) festival.

The documentary, directed by Holiff’s eldest son, Jonathan, sheds a bright light on the events surrounding Cash’s tempestuous early career, which was fuelled by alcoholism, womanizing and drug addiction.

Jonathan used never-before-heard audiotape recordings featuring interviews and dialogue between Cash and the elder Holiff – Saul kept a secret audio journal throughout his life – in the film. The existence of the journal was revealed by Saul’s wife, Barbara, to her children only after his death. In the documentary, Jonathan paints a picture of both a business relationship and a friendship that spanned a decade filled with strife.

More than that though, the documentary is Jonathan’s quest to discover, understand and make peace with memories of an often absent and mostly abusive father. While Saul managed Cash, Saul spent most of his time on the road with Cash and other artists he was managing. As well, Jonathan was estranged from Saul during the last 20 years of his life.

Saul Holiff committed what the film describes as “rational suicide” in 2005. At the time, it had been more than 30 years since he resigned as Cash’s manager and show business altogether.

Over the course of the 90-minute documentary, Jonathan paints a picture of his father as a man who was misunderstood. But the film doesn’t tone down or excuse the abuse Jonathan and his brother, Joshua, suffered at Saul’s hands and the feelings of abandonment experienced as a child longing for his father.

While the film is a revealing look at the inner workings and concurrent turmoil experienced by both Cash and Saul Holiff during their years together as artist and manager, it is, at heart, a cathartic project for Jonathan.

Speaking to The CJN last week from his mother’s home in Nanaimo, B.C., Jonathan said he was excited about the film’s Canadian première and opened up about his childhood memories of his dad and Cash.

“Initially, I resented Johnny for taking my dad away all the time. But by the time I was 10 years old, I began to look at [Cash] as a real-life superhero,” he said. “He had this magnetism to him.”

Jonathan, 45, said that although his parents were Jewish, he grew up in an atheist household and one that was “archetypical” of families of the time: comprising a domineering, bread-winning father and a meek, subservient mother who “tried her hardest” but ultimately failed to stop Saul’s abusive patterns toward her children.

  In a key moment about his father’s decision to leave Cash at the height of the musician’s career, a question that hangs over the documentary for most of the film, Jonathan reveals that a rift about religion likely was the last straw.

By the early 1970s, Cash had kicked the drugs and booze and then promptly found a replacement for his addictions: faith.

Cash, a born-again Christian, became obsessed with Jesus and took the opportunity to visit Israel numerous times to walk in the Nazarene’s path, record gospel tunes and even film a movie about Christ’s life.

At one point, Cash asks Saul whether he believes Jesus is the arrival of the prophet spoken of in the Old Testament. Saul gives an evasive answer, and the relationship between the two is never the same.

To make matters worse, Cash’s wife, June Carter-Cash, insinuates at one point that all Saul is concerned about is money. The implication, interpreted by Saul, is that he’s become viewed as “the Jew.”

He breaks from the Cash camp shortly thereafter and drops out of the Hollywood and music game for good.

Saul’s audio diaries also reveal a man who was “more self-aware than I could have imagined,” Jonathan said.

The audio diary reveals how Saul regretted his bad parenting and that his work with Cash was robbing him of his time with his family and how the singer’s “fundamentalist, Christianity jazz” was eating away at his Jewish soul.

Jonathan Holiff will attend the Canadian première of My Father and the Man in Black.

It’s a must-see for fans of Johnny Cash, country music historians and anyone interested in finding out just how a Canadian small-town Jewish man ended up managing one of the icons of American country music.

CORRECTION: Jonathan Holiff did not contact the heirs of the Cash family to get permission for his documentary. The CJN regrets the error.