VIFF 2012: Canadian-made music documentaries cash in on cool
Out of more than 20 movies exploring the great variety of music in the world today, or yesterday, in this year’s VIFF, four are Canadian-made documentaries about intensely different performing artists.
Stompin’ Tom Connors aside, how many musicians are recognizable as purely Canadian? The Tragically Hip certainly qualifies. The Ontario band—like its regional brethren Blue Rodeo, forever on the cusp but never getting big south of the border—is seen in Andy Keen’s Bobcaygeon (screening October 8 and 9) rehearsing for a concert in the town that inspired one of its best-loved tunes.
Conversely, the star of Quebec’s I Am Not a Rock Star (September 29, 30, and October 3) is a Montreal teenager, pianist Marika Bournaki, caught by filmmaker Bobbi Jo Hart in the midst of growing up and establishing a career playing concert classics almost entirely from Europe. (There’s one supremely Canadian moment, when she tackles Glenn Gould’s own piano in Toronto.)
James Cullingham’s In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey (October 1, 4, and 5) is a compelling ode to a distinctly American guitarist who suffered greatly for his eclectic art, which combined strains of blues, country, and world music before such things were fashionable, or remunerative. On the face of it, My Father and the Man in Black would appear to cover some of the same territory, albeit on a more rarefied plane: the darkly clad fellow in question being Johnny Cash, one of the most iconic Murricans ever to strap on an acoustic guitar.
Although easy to watch the results (on October 2, 9, and 11), the film represents a tough five years for Jonathan Holiff, whose dad, Saul, was the legendary singer’s manager from 1960-73—in other words, Cash’s key period, other than his last-minute revival courtesy of Rick Rubin’s American Recordings. Rubin was not the first Jewish easterner to have a dramatic effect on the demon-dogged singer’s career. But Saul Holiff, who put June Carter in Cash’s band and set up the famous Folsom Prison concert and recording, had the additional distinction of being Canadian. He was also a raging alcoholic who severely neglected his wife and two sons.
The elder boy followed dad’s footsteps into showbiz, moving to Los Angeles and becoming a top talent agent, specializing in celebrity endorsements and also producing live-TV specials in Canada and the U.S. That changed after his father committed suicide in 2005.
“It was only then that I realized I was in a vicious competition with my father,” Jonathan Holiff recalls on the line from his mother’s home in Nanaimo. “And that it would kill me, too, if I didn’t stop.”
Something else happened. The veteran manager—who, astonishingly, quit Cash to go back to university—left a storage locker full of photos, papers, and other memorabilia, including a treasure trove of audio recordings that put the man, and the man in black, in a whole new light.
“It took months to face it,” Holiff recalls, “and I didn’t want the stuff to upset my mom. So I set up camp at the locker and I couldn’t believe what I heard. Here was this man—so cruel and judgmental at home, and so dedicated to his work when he was away—and in private, his words were so confessional and unguarded. It really made me rethink everything.”
For one thing, it allowed him to see his father as a product of his own times and circumstances.
“I realized that my father’s father was even colder with his children, and that my dad was very much a man of the 1950s, despite all the showbiz razzle-dazzle. People forget that he also handled people like Kris Kristofferson and Barbara Mandrell. Today, Johnny Cash appears inevitable, but he came that close to never happening, and that’s where my dad put his energy.
“He was a striver of the Duddy Kravitz type, with some Sammy Glick thrown in,” Holiff says, referring to the antihero of What Makes Sammy Run?, Budd Schulberg’s novel of late studio-era Hollywood.
That epiphany, among others, drove the younger man—who last met Cash when Holiff was just 17—to abandon his own Tinseltown dreams.
“Now, I can’t even watch Entourage,” he adds with a laugh. “I was Ari Gold, for God’s sake! Finding my father’s locker was an incredible blessing, but it did foster a new obsession, which was making this movie, at all costs. I lost my marriage to this thing, my career is gone, and now I’m living with my mother in Nanaimo. So how good are my prospects, really?”
With that Woody Allenish shrug, he’s discounting his nascent talent as a filmmaker. Despite some rough edges, Holiff’s first movie is imaginatively crafted, ruthlessly honest, and genuinely haunting. He’ll attend the latter two screening dates and will carry a couple of gold records and some extra audio to show and tell after the screenings.
If there’s not enough Canadian angle here for you, get tickets for any of the other two dozen or so Canuck features and shorts programs on offer at VIFF this year. Or check out The Grub-Stake, a 1923 silent drama filmed in the Yukon that will be presented on October 7 at the Vogue, complete with new dialogue and accompaniment by a live orchestra led by composer Daniel Janke.