Johnny Cash and his Jewish manager
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Johnny Cash and his Jewish manager

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Johnny Cash and his Jewish manager, Saul Holiff, were fragile human beings. Above, Holiff with Cash and Cash’s wife, June. Photos Courtesy Jonathan Holiff

Of all the celebrities who have appeared in recent years, Johnny Cash was one of the strangest.

He became a rich and world-famous country singer, then a born-again Christian, made a movie about Jesus before Mel Gibson did – and then his career foundered.

For much of his career, he had a Jewish manager, Saul Holiff, to whom he expressed unstinting gratitude. Yet Holiff accused Cash’s wife, June Carter, of being anti-Semitic when she said he was money-minded, and soon after he resigned – while Cash was still a big star – possibly because of tension between him and Cash over Cash’s religiosity. Holiff himself was an atheist. But, says his son, Jonathan, “He always quickly and voluntarily identified himself as a Jew.”

A provocative, unusual new documentary, “My Father and the Man in Black,” opens today in the New York area, and tells the story of the two men. It is a dense, complicated film, produced, written, and directed by Jonathan Holiff, Saul’s son, who as a child knew both Cash and Carter. The film – varied, fast-paced, absorbing – already has won awards all over the world. It begins, shockingly, with a realistic enactment of Saul’s suicide in 2005.

In a popular 2005 film, “Walk the Line,” Joaquin Phoenix played Cash, Reese Witherspoon played June – and Saul, unaccountably, was never even mentioned.

Saul left no suicide note, but his son later found a storeroom of material about his father and Johnny Cash – letters, audio tapes, and videos. He spent almost all of his savings making this memorable film.

What struck me after seeing the film was how similar Cash and Saul Holiff were. They were flawed and fragile human beings, heavy drinkers and pill-poppers, determined to prove themselves after having endured critical, unloving fathers. But Cash had a wife to help him late in life, whereas Saul and his wife had separated – and he seemed indifferent to his two sons. (After leaving Cash, Holiff returned to school and graduated with a BA in history, with honors, from the University of Virginia.)

Jonathan Holiff points out another bond between the two men: They had siblings who had died young. Cash’s older brother was killed accidentally while using an electric saw; Holiff’s sister was killed by Cossacks in Russia. Possibly their unhappiness had something to do with survivor guilt.

The film leaves the viewer with a number of questions:

Why did Saul Holiff kill himself?

Why did he leave Cash?

Was June Carter really anti-Semitic?

Was Cash? He tried to bring Holiff into the Christian fold (Saul used the word “offensive” in a tape), and in his film Cash cast him as a villain, Calaphas, a Jewish high priest implicated in Christian scripture in the trial of Jesus.

Why did Holiff agree to play the role?

Another question: Why was Cash so amazingly popular? Besides being a good performer, I suspect he appealed to the average person. He reminds me of those surly kids in high school – the hoods – who eventually became “contractors.” Modest (“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” he would introduce himself at a concert). And he established a distinct persona: the man in black.

But he, like Saul Holiff, was complicated. Perhaps surprisingly, Cash was a good friend of Pete Seeger, and supported him against his enemies.

In a phone interview recently, Jonathan Holiff answered a number of questions.

Why was Cash so popular? Holiff points out that Cash was unique: When he sang someone else’s song, it became his own song. Besides, later in life this sinner – drug addict, jailbird, womanizer – became “redeemed,” something that always has had broad popular appeal.

Were Cash or Carter anti-Semitic? Probably not, says Holiff.

What’s different about this film? Everything seems authentic. Every word, every line, came from life. “Nothing was invented,” says Holiff.

What’s the derivation of his name? Probably Russian-Ukrainian, he answered, originally Challoff. “We may be the only family in the world with this name.”

I suspect that the film, despite its complexity, will be popular with both critics and the public. My touchstone for judging a film is: Would I want to see it again? My answer about “My Father and the Man in Black” is: Certainly.

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