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NXNE 2012 Review: My Father and the Man in Black

The story at the root of My Father and the Man in Black is an interesting one. The movie tells the story of director Jonathan Holiff’s relationship with his father Saul, a recently deceased man who was Johnny Cash’s manager for the majority of Cash’s career.

At the beginning of the film, Jonathan wants to leave the memory of his father behind him, as his childhood of being ignored and treated like a property to be managed remains fresh in his head. However, upon finding a storage locker key at his mother’s home, Jonathan finds himself in a room filled with memorabilia from Saul’s career managing Cash, as well as copious amounts of personal recordings in Saul’s own voice, which act as a sort of audio diary of his life.

These audiotapes, as well as Jonathan’s own personal memories and thoughts, form the backbone of My Father and the Man in Black’s narration. And throughout the film, the tapes make the movie both more emotional and interesting, if only because it lends undeniable authenticity to a type of film that generally leaves its viewer confused about what’s real and what’s fake. (See: biopics like Walk the Line.) We see key moments in Cash’s career retold through Saul Holiff’s perspective, adding an interesting layer to the versions of these stories that are typically the most well known. Even aside from the aspects of the stories of his time with Cash, the aspects of the film that deal with Saul’s life without Cash are equally fascinating. To call Jonathan’s relationship with his father ‘fractured’ isn’t doing it justice, and watching father and son reconcile in a unique way is fascinating.

The film is both entertaining as well as informative, and is easily the best movie I saw throughout NXNE. It is not without its troubles, however. The film is generally expertly put together, being retold whenever possible through engaging graphics work and archive footage, but the film is still primarily narrated by Jonathan Holiff himself, a man who is not a particularly talented actor. In the dramatic re-enactments featuring Jonathan, and others featuring stand-ins for Cash and Saul, the film loses some steam. And when the film relies on Jonathan to tell the story, there is a certain woodenness to his performance that hurts the film dramatically, and often takes the viewer out of the story. Of course, to say this in a review that also praises the film’s appearance of authentic retellings of its story means there is no solution for Jonathan’s performance. If he were to be replaced with a more talented actor, it would remove much of the feelings that the film relies on to succeed, so this is a generally mild complaint given how well the rest of the film works. It would have been ideal if the film could have relied simply on archival footage, images, and audio recordings, but the amount of those found in the film as constructed is semi-miraculous as is, so this is certainly a forgivable issue.

My Father and the Man in Black is a movie about one’s obligation to others in their lives, and it is an interesting examination of the concept. By making the movie, we see that Jonathan started to feel it was his duty to tell his father’s story, not unlike Saul felt he had to continue to help Johnny Cash out of his many jams, even at the expense of Saul’s own family structure. At the beginning of the film, Jonathan hates his father, and more or less wants to forget him. By the end of the film, however, he not only has a stronger, more emotional connection to him, but makes sure the audience does as well.

[star v=4]

Alex Stephenson

Alex is an avid film fan, with an appreciation for both low and high culture. He loves Steven Seagal movies, but he can break down all those womb metaphors in The Graduate, too.