Director: Jonathan Holiff
Studio: New Chapter Productions
Stars: Johnny Cash, Saul Holiff, June Carter Cash
It’s often a mess, but an utterly compelling mess, this documentary in which estranged son Jonathan Holiff learns about Saul Holiff, the driven, distant deceased father he never really knew, a man who for decades absorbed himself in managing the career of Johnny Cash before committing suicide in 2005.
The movie is a bonanza for those who can’t get enough of the turbulent Cash, especially for those itching for an edgier, more truthful glimpse behind the curtain than was delivered by Walk the Line. We learn how Holiff Sr., purely for commercial and creative reasons, first proposed putting the hell-raising Cash together with June Carter; how near death the singer’s drugging and drinking brought him time and again; how drugs ruined Cash’s voice and how Carter helped turn her husband toward asserting the preachy born-again Christianity that eventually cost Cash his TV series, lost him millions of dollars in a self-financed Jesus movie (in which Cash cast the elder Holiff himself in a dubious role) and produced an ill-timed and not especially good religious album. Running right alongside the story of Cash’s hair-raising unraveling is the younger Holiff’s discovering his father through written archives and daily audiotapes in which we hear his father struggle with the ghosts of his childhood, crippling depression, alcohol abuse, feelings of inadequacy, and indifference, if not outright hostility, toward his son. There’s also a fascinating undercurrent of the increasingly unhinged, ultrareligious Cash’s growing mistrust of Holiff for religious reasons (Holiff was a Jew).
There's so much compelling raw material that it’s a pity it is so badly undercut by cheesy reenactments by sort-of-lookalike actors playing Cash, Carter and Holiff. Jonathan Holiff’s uneasy, awkward and superficial narration doesn't help either. Elements this amateurish are unworthy of the great, grabby tale lurking at the center of the film.