SXSW 2020: My Darling Vivian - Reviewed

My Darling Vivian (2020) takes a look at the life of Vivian Liberto, the first wife of Johnny Cash, and the mother of his four daughters. All four daughters were interviewed for this documentary, and it really brings to light an unknown chapter in Cash’s legacy. Liberto was a very private and protective woman, and this is apparent early on in this film with the magnitude of reel-to-reel footage of Cash that had never been seen before. For fans of Cash, this will no doubt be a delight, yet it comes with a price. Many people have admired the great love of Johnny and June Carter Cash. Yet that foundation has always had scandalous roots, and many of those are brought to the forefront of this documentary. A lot of what people think they know about Vivian is what they seen in the wildly fictitious portrayal of her in the film Walk The Line. The movie’s main focus is the love that blossoms between Johnny and June, and portrays Vivian as an angry woman that tried to squash Cash’s pursuits as a musician. Oddly enough, the film is named after Cash’s first #1 hit, which he wrote for Vivian. All four of Vivian’s daughters were disgusted with the portrayal, with one walking out on the film during the family screening. Film director Matt Riddlehoover really does Liberto justice by telling the whole story with this documentary. It reveals a great love between Johnny and Vivian before Cash became addicted to drugs. Along with the reel to reel footage, there are hundreds of family photos and over 1000 letters that Vivian and Cash wrote to each other while Cash was in the army. They were deeply in love with each other and had made a good life for themselves and their daughters.  

There are definite elements of sadness to this documentary. It does call to question what would of happened had Cash never got messed up with drugs. His arrest for possession of narcotics had a devastating effect on his family. It wasn’t just an embarrassing episode in the public eye. In a ludicrous turn of events, the photo of Vivian and Cash exiting the court building after Cash’s arrest would spark a rumor that Liberto was black and all of Cash’s daughters were mixed race. Liberto was Italian. It got so bad the Ku Klax Klan sent Liberto death threats and many Southern states cancelled all scheduled Johnny Cash performances as a result. It was a horrific experience for Liberto who was in constant fear for her and her daughter's lives. What Cash needed to do to reinstate his good faith is just sad and depressing. You won’t see that is Walk The Line. While Cash claims June Carter helped save his life, in many ways she destroyed another. While there are no blatant accusations that June Carter stole Cash away from Liberto, there are enough revelations in My Darling Vivian to suggest a very real possibility. Riddlehoover does a good job piecing this documentary together that doesn’t tarnish the legacy of Johnny and June, but it does evoke some feelings of disappointment and a little bit of disgust. It pulls back the curtain just enough to not be too one sided. 

As the story goes Johnny and Vivian’s 13 year marriage ended in divorce. My Darling Vivian doesn’t end there, and tells the story of Liberto’s entire life until her death in 2005. A lot of credit has to be given to her daughters. It’s easy to see it wasn’t a comfortable process digging up the skeletons of their past. Each daughter was interviewed separately, and at times their recollections are pieced together in a way that appears to be playful banter between sisters, and at other times there is almost a hint of disdain. With all the stories revealed in My Darling Vivian, the documentary does a good job staying focused on Liberto. It's her story, and it's about time it finally got told. 

--Lee L. Lind