TORONTO - When Jonathan Holiff was a kid and asked about the whereabouts of his persistently absent father, the answer would inevitably include the name Johnny Cash.
That's because Canadian Saul Holiff managed the career of the famed country-music outlaw, back in the days when being a manager was a round-the-clock gig that involved lording over every element of a musical career.
"My father, he was always away," Jonathan Holiff said in an interview at his Toronto office Tuesday. "I heard (Cash's) name so often because it was the excuse why he wasn't there to play with me. And so at an early age, I probably resented Cash for taking my father away.
"But as I grew older and started becoming obsessed with the Justice League and Superman and cartoons, being around Johnny Cash ... was like being in the presence of a superhero. Here you have a guy who's 6-foot-2, dressed all in black, as tall as an oak tree with a voice as deep as the ocean.
"I thought if I turned my back on him, he would don a cape and fly away like Superman."
Well, his impression of both Cash and his father is certainly more nuanced now.
He's spent six years crafting the documentary "My Father and the Man in Black," which will premiere this Friday during Toronto's North by Northeast music and film festival.
He began delving into the project after his father committed suicide in 2005.
The Holiffs had a troubled relationship since childhood and they had been estranged for 20 years prior to the suicide. So when he learned his dad had kept a storage locker full of Cash memorabilia — including meticulous records of more than 600 correspondences with the singer as well as personal audio diaries recorded over more than four decades — Jonathan Holiff saw an opportunity to get some answers.
"Here was a father who had just killed himself, didn't leave me a note, and I had woken up at the age of 40 to realize my entire life was a teenaged knee-jerk reaction to my father — I was going to go out and be bigger than Saul Holiff in show business and he'll have to love me, he'll have to respect me," he said, noting he had been president of an L.A. based entertainment-marketing agency.
"Then he offs himself. I get up, don't want to get out of bed, can't go to work, close my business, drive home."
He said his goal was never to draw attention to his father's legacy. But as he sorted through letters and recordings of telephone calls the men exchanged, he nevertheless came to understand his father played a far larger role in the Man in Black's hall-of-fame career than typically given credit for (the Oscar-winning 2005 biopic "Walk the Line," for instance, doesn't mention his dad at all).
Saul Holiff guided Cash's career between 1958 and 1973, doing so largely from an office in London, Ont., because he was unhappy living in the U.S.
As the documentary tells it, he was crucial in pushing Cash to record his seminal live LPs "At Folsom Prison" and "Johnny Cash at San Quentin." He propped Cash up as his addiction to pills and booze threatened to dissolve his career in the 1960s.
And he was even instrumental in bringing Cash together with his eventual wife, June Carter Cash. Back in 1961, the Dallas country program "Big D Jamboree" wanted to book Cash but wasn't interested in a solo performance, so Saul Holiff suggested that Carter would make a perfect stage companion.
Cash himself did pay his respects to his manager while he was alive — in his 1997 autobiography, he wrote "(Saul) made many of the most significant moves in my career, and I owe him a lot."
But their relationship wasn't easy. Their 15-year working union was fraught with disagreements and near-divorces, before Saul Holiff made the unusual move of quitting his star client in 1973 for reasons that constitute the climax of his son's film.
"Saul was every bit the Brian Epstein to the Beatles or Colonel Tom Parker to Elvis," the filmmaker said. "These managers, they don't quit superstars. They don't get off that gravy train for anything."
Saul Holiff's relationship with his kids was even more strained. He was absent for much of the time he was managing Cash, then drank heavily after quitting. As presented in the movie, he's a stern and emotionally distant presence who saw fit to provide each of his sons with an itemized list of all the meals and birthday presents they ever received before paying himself back from their trust funds.
Yet, strangely, "My Father and the Man in Black" seemed to bring Holiff's family together. Jonathan Holiff's brother, Joshua Robinson, portrays his father during the film's dramatic reproductions. Several of their cousins were involved in putting the film together and his mother — who was Saul Holiff's "right hand" while steering Cash's career — was instrumental in pushing her son to explore the archives in the first place.
And doing so finally gave Jonathan Holiff what he was after all along — he made peace with his dad.
"The one thing I never realized about my father until I listened to his diaries was that he was self-aware — the father he showed us when we were growing up was beyond reproach, never wrong, could not be challenged, was completely the ultimate authority, physically and emotionally scary as hell," he said.
"But I found I was listening to a man who ... clearly struggled with the issue of being a good parent. And that revelation to me was so great that not only did I empathize with him but I forgave him and I reconciled with him."