One of the films that was set to premiere at this year’s SXSW was My Darling Vivian, a documentary about Johnny Cash’s first wife and mother of their four daughters. Reduced to scarcely a footnote in the story of “The Man in Black,” the film sets the record straight and restores Vivian Liberto’s rightful place in Cash’s enduring legacy.
Directed by Matt Riddlehoover and produced by Justin Tittle (who happens to be the grandson of Cash and Liberto), My Darling Vivian utilizes never-before-seen family photos, interviews with Roseanne, Kathy, Cindy and Tara Cash, and archival news and film clips to shed light on a woman who was left very much in the shadows as Cash’s fame soared and his life with June Carter took center stage. The result is an intimate and loving portrait that gives Vivian her due without sugarcoating her memory.
The title of the film was inspired by the more than 1,000 love letters exchanged by the couple, starting with their courtship. Cash and the beautiful, exotic-looking Liberto met at a roller skating rink in the early 1950s — a meet-cute moment that’s amusingly told through slightly different stories by each of the daughters. The couple married shortly after Cash returned home from active Air Force duty in Germany. They moved to Memphis, Tenn., where they quickly started a family and he pursued his music career.
The footage at this stage of the film is particularly wonderful, showing a blissful young couple and a doting, almost goofy Cash. As the fairy tale begins to unravel, one of the film’s great strengths stems from having each of the daughters, filmed individually, sharing their recollections of the family experience — threats from the Ku Klux Klan, their father’s long absences, the stress of fame, his drug abuse, infidelity and post-divorce life. The daughters each have their own experiences with their mother and father, and their reflections collectively provide an especially effective and authentic lens through which to view both parents.
In spite of everything, Liberto’s love for Cash never flagged. She walked the line — and toed it, too, making My Darling Vivian a must-see for any Cash fan wishing to truly understand him.
Available to rent via grailmoviehouse.com