Jewish Journal

Two docs, two singers, one manager

by Iris Mann

Posted on May. 30, 2013 at 1:44 pm

Neil Diamond. Photo courtesy of the BBC

Neil Diamond. Photo courtesy of the BBC

Two films screening this year at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival involve world-renowned singers. “Neil Diamond: Solitary Man” chronicles the career of the “Jewish Elvis,” a singer who has sold more than 125 million records worldwide and has to his credit such iconic hits as “Sweet Caroline,” “America,” “Song Sung Blue” and “Brooklyn Roads,” among numerous others.

Underlying the film’s chronology is the tale of a shy, insecure Jewish boy from Brooklyn driven to create music that would express his deepest feelings and help him better understand himself.

A 2010 production by the BBC, the documentary begins with a home movie of Diamond’s parents, descended from Eastern European Jewish immigrants, bringing the newborn Neil home from the hospital in 1941. At the time, the family lived behind his father’s haberdashery store.

Diamond entered pre-med at New York University on a fencing scholarship. But songwriting was his passion, so he ultimately dropped out of college and headed for Tin Pan Alley, where he got a job as a staff songwriter for a company in the Brill Building, at the time the center of the music business in New York. There he met the husband-and-wife team of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, who produced several of his compositions and gave him his start as a performer.

Barry is among several figures from Diamond’s life who bring the narrative forward, along with Neil Sedaka, who describes Diamond as a combination of introvert and extrovert. Sedaka is referring to Diamond’s solitary writing persona being in conflict with his need to be more extroverted when singing before a live audience. By the early 1970s, Diamond had overcome his insecurity and gave a hugely successful series of concerts at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, from which came the hit album “Hot August Nights.”  

Then there was a disappointing foray into film acting, and a slump in record sales through the ’80s, although Diamond continued to tour successfully.  

From the 1990s onward, Diamond has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, and he continues to record and make personal appearances.  

“Neil Diamond: Solitary Man” screens June 2, 5 p.m., at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills.

Johnny Cash and manager Saul Holiff, 1962.

One of the people credited with furthering the resurgence in record sales for Diamond is Rick Rubin, who also helped revive the career of country singer Johnny Cash with the album “American Recordings.” 

Cash figures prominently in the documentary “My Father and the Man in Black,” which covers the country singer from the early days of his career, including his failures to show up for appearances, drug use and drinking, arrests, womanizing and his divorce from his first wife after meeting June Carter, whom he would later marry. It also depicts his conversion to fundamentalist Christianity in the late 1960s. 

But the heart of the movie is the broken relationship between Cash’s Canadian-Jewish manager, Saul Holiff, and Holiff’s son Jonathan, who wrote and directed the documentary. The movie depicts Saul as a distant, demanding and autocratic father, and the filmmaker remembers his childhood household as being run very much like a business.  

Holiff and his father were estranged for 20 years. Then, when Saul committed suicide in 2005, Jonathan closed his Hollywood agency and returned to Canada. Months later, the Cash biopic “Walk the Line” was released, and the house was deluged with phone calls from journalists wanting to know about the relationship between Saul and Johnny and why Saul quit in the early 1970s when Cash was at the height of his success.

“The question that I would rather not answer,” Holiff said, “because it would spoil the ending for the viewer, is what actually did lead to Saul quitting Johnny Cash, and, in that light, [there is] the fascinating story of the Jew and the fundamentalist Christian, and the ideological conflicts that unfolded in the early 1970s.”

What Holiff wanted to understand was why his father committed suicide and why he did not leave a note. Then, Holiff’s mother gave him the key to his father’s storage locker, where he found 60 hours of audio diaries and taped phone conversations between Saul and Johnny.

“It was the audio diaries that afforded me the unique opportunity to meet my father,” Jonathan Holiff explained, “before he was a parent, to meet a man my own age talking across the decades about the challenges he faced in life, in relationships, with his job, issues that I could relate to and appreciate and understand and empathize with.

“I learned that not only was he self-aware, but that he was endlessly berating himself and considered himself a failure as a parent, as a husband, as a man, as a businessman, and it was shocking.”

But it allowed Holiff  to finally make peace with his father, and it led him to make a documentary about their journey.

“I like to describe this movie as a universal story of fathers and sons, estranged parents and siblings, and dysfunctional families, disguised as a Johnny Cash movie. And I’ve been very gratified, and I think the proof is in the pudding, to the extent that this movie has now traveled since it premiered in June to more than one dozen countries.”

“My Father and the Man in Black” will be screened June 3, 7 p.m., at the Muvico in Thousand Oaks, and June 5, 7:30 p.m., at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills.

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