June 02--Reeling from the suicide of a distant and unloving father he barely knew, Jonathan Holiff plunged into an unexpected portal into the past.
There, in a storage locker, he found not only peace and forgiveness for his dad, but also a colorful and intimate link to one of the 20th century's biggest music superstars.
"It was spooky and emotional and cathartic," Holiff said recently in an interview from his mother's home in Nanaimo, British Columbia.
An outgrowth of this discovery is "My Father and the Man in Black," Holiff's unusual documentary film about his dad, Saul, and the iconic star he managed for more than a decade, Johnny Cash.
The 87-minute movie debuted last year and has won critical kudos and awards on the international film festival circuit. The next stop is two showings at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, including one Monday night at the Muvico theater in Thousand Oaks.
The film has Ventura County fingerprints all over it. Saul Holiff was Cash's manager from 1960 to 1973, and Cash lived in Casitas Springs from 1961 to 1967. The two opened an office, called Johnny Cash Incorporated, in the old Zander Building on Main Street in Ventura.
The film also touches on the infamous 508-acre forest fire that Cash accidentally set in the backcountry above Fillmore in June 1965. The fire took a week to put out, required air tanker drops and resulted in Cash being prosecuted -- reportedly, the first private citizen ever successfully prosecuted for setting a forest fire, though the U.S. Forest Service has cast doubts on that claim.
Saul Holiff also handled the divorce of Cash and his first wife, Vivian, who lived out the rest of her years in Ventura. All four daughters she had with Cash -- Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy and Tara -- graduated from St. Bonaventure High School in Ventura.
The film also cites old clippings of Cash's exploits, many of them from what is now The Star, then called the Ventura County Star-Free Press. The newspaper, Jonathan noted, was a large part of the film's story, adding that his dad's files were full of tearsheets from the paper.
Those were in that portal to the past -- his dad's storage locker that Jonathan found not long after Saul committed suicide in March 2005. At the time of his father's death, Jonathan had been estranged from him for 20 years.
Jonathan, then a Hollywood talent agent, began rooting around in the locker in November 2005, the same month the Cash biopic "Walk The Line" opened in theaters.
A Cash box
What he found was eye-opening: audiotapes of interviews and dialogues between Cash and his dad, including phone conversations; his dad's personal audio diaries; hundreds of letters between the manager and star; hundreds of photos of Cash, many of them never seen before; five gold records, including "A Boy Named Sue," along with promotional posters and vinyl records; a last will and testament (Saul had been made executor of Cash's estate during the Vivian divorce proceedings); old Super 8 films and home movies; and arrest warrants, court summons and mug shots of Cash.
"It was a treasure trove," Jonathan noted.
It was also a glimpse into a big chunk of what made Cash a legend. The 1960s-early '70s period during which the elder Holiff managed the Man in Black was rife with some of the most colorful and worst of Cash's bad-boy behavior -- the pills, booze, binges and arrests.
That included his Casitas Springs days. In addition to the forest fire, there were the times Cash was passed out on his boat on Lake Casitas and had to be taken away. And there was the time sheriff's deputies went to his house above Nye Road in Casitas Springs to tell him to shut down the loud Christmas music that thundered through the area via loudspeakers he set up in the backyard. A devastated Cash thought he was doing a community service, but "Joy To The World" was silenced.
Holiff told the story of the time Cash jumped out of a speeding truck just seconds before it plunged off a 600-foot cliff near his Casitas Springs home. "He was always destroying vehicles," he said.
At one point in the film, Cash said he was hooked on amphetamines, barbiturates and alcohol, adding, "I got up to a habit of as many as a hundred pills a day and a case of beer. There was a lot of people who OD'd on a lot less than that."
The first tape from the locker that Jonathan listened to is the one where his father finds Cash unconscious on a mobile-home floor in Toronto in 1966 -- "for all intents and purposes, he was dead," the film intones. Yet Cash played two sold-out shows in Rochester, N.Y., the next day.
It was a strange coupling of -- as the film puts it -- a serious-minded Jew from Canada and a wild Southern Baptist.
Saul was there for the arrests, the trials, the no-shows and the refunds; the film ticks off canceled shows from Madison, Wis., to Miami and many points elsewhere.
But Saul was also there for the good times. Those included the famous Folsom Prison gig in 1968 and San Quentin the next year (where Cash recorded, live, what became the smash hit "A Boy Named Sue"), shows that made Cash an international star, and Cash's popular namesake 1969-71 TV variety show.
Or as Cash historian Mark Stielper said, "Holiff took on the role of mentor, alternately cajoling and castigating his charge as they careened through the 1960s. Holiff became Cash's protector and tormentor, father and brother. Their disputes were frequent; their victories pulled from the jaws of defeat."
It was also Holiff who put Cash together with June Carter -- professionally speaking. In the early 1960s, he suggested Cash needed a female singer for his stage shows and put forth her name; Cash agreed.
A hostile witness
Jonathan Holiff wrote, directed, produced and narrated "My Father and the Man in Black."
In addition to audiotapes and other locker contents, he augments the film with old Cash interviews and other footage. There's an out-of-it Cash jamming with Bob Dylan backstage, and Cash on "Sesame Street" singing with Oscar the Grouch.
The film likely has enough of that in there, along with the old photos and the like, to attract Cash fans.
Holiff's film also posits that the reason Saul quit as manager is that Cash, who became born-again by the early '70s, was pressuring his Jewish father to convert to Christianity, and his dad resented it.
Holiff denies the critics who'd say he's trying to cash in on Cash's legacy. The film, he said, focuses on his father's story.
"If I wanted to do an expose on Johnny Cash," he said, "the stuff I uncovered (in the locker) would curl your toes."
He said he went into that locker with a spiral notebook to "do my own emotional archaeology, my therapy." He also went in as "a hostile witness," angry at his dad.
"I was angry over his suicide," Holiff said. "I was angry that we hadn't spoken in 20 years."
It was, he said, "an extraordinarily emotional experience." When his mom spied his notes on the table one day, she suggested he write a book. He thought a Canadian TV special would work better, but then some old Hollywood connections, notably "House, M.D." executive producer David Shor, told him the story was filmworthy.
The documentary plays out a bit unusually, featuring among other things no-dialogue recreations of certain scenes. Many audio parts are the actual voices, from the tapes, of his father and Cash (who died in 2003).
Something worked. The Village Voice called the film "extraordinary" and said "heart and feeling is soaked through it like the sweat in Cash's guitar strap." The Hollywood Reporter deemed it "a privileged perspective on crucial moments in Johnny Cash's career."
Growing up Cash?
Holiff doesn't remember much of his early childhood; his father often was absent, on the road with Cash.
He and his brother, Joshua, were largely raised by nannies. Said Holiff: "Growing up, I heard the name Johnny Cash so much, I thought my dad's name was Johnny Cash."
He didn't realize it until he sifted through the locker, but he went on his first Cash tour when he was just 9 months old (on the rare occasion his dad brought the family along).
He does remember the imposing Cash.
"He was taller than a tree, with a voice as deep as the ocean, dressed in all black," he recalled. "I knew he was magnetic. I thought he had super powers. And best of all, he spoiled us rotten with candy and all sorts of goodies."
Holiff called his father a two-dimensional authoritarian figure who never let on his feelings. The film depicts him as abusive; like Cash, he drank a lot. Holiff also narrates that his father treated him more like a client than son -- telling him what to wear, how to talk and to call him sir.
In the end, Holiff found peace, forgiveness and empathy for his dad. He regrets that he never saw the father evidenced on the tapes, the one who admitted he was a bad parent and wanted to spend more time with his kids.
But Holiff isn't completely changed; he indicated he likely wouldn't reconcile with his father if he were still alive. The sad part, he said, is that his father's expressed desire to spend more time with his kids never happened.
He wanted to do a universal story about fathers and sons, hopefully touch people emotionally, and maybe make a few reassess their relationships with their parents or kids.
For those in a similar situation, Holiff's advice is to do something about it now; chances are, almost all of them will not find a storage locker full of tapes their dad made. He feels lucky he was at least able to get to know his father a little that way.
The film's success -- it's won at least a half-dozen best documentary awards at various film festivals -- keeps resurrecting the old days for Holiff, through interviews, appearances and the like.
After this week's go-round locally, the film is slated to go to Russia, China, Spain and Belgium before landing stateside again in San Francisco this summer.
"In a way," he said, "I'm still living with my father's ghost."
Cash film coming
Man in Black: Jonathan Holiff's documentary film "My Father and the Man in Black" screens at 7 p.m. Monday at the Muvico theater, 166 W. Hillcrest Drive in Thousand Oaks, as part of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. Holiff will do a question-and-answer session after the film.
Cost: Tickets are $12 for adults and $9 for seniors and students. For more information, call the film festival at 213-368-1661 or visit lajfilmfest.org.; the festival opened Saturday and continues through Thursday. The Muvico number is 494-4702.
Another screening: The film will also screen at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd. in Beverly Hills. The same prices and contacts apply; the theater number is 310-274-6860.
Ventura tribute concert: The fifth annual "Roadshow Revival: A Tribute to the Music of Johnny Cash" concert, featuring Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett, Junior Brown, The Blasters, the cover band Cash'd Out and others, will be held June 15 at the Ventura County Fairgrounds in Ventura. Tickets range from $5 to $150; see www.roadshowrevival.com.
(c)2013 Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.)
Visit Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.) at www.vcstar.com
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