The biggest challenge for any documentary filmmaker is not only to tell a compelling, unique story but to present it in a fresh, moving way. And that’s exactly what director Matt Riddlehoover does with “My Darling Vivian”.
The name Vivian Liberto likely means nothing to you. When you learn she was Johnny Cash’s first wife, and the mother of his first four children, chances are you’re interest perks-up a little. “My Darling Vivian” is Vivian’s life story – from being Cash’s first love and early inspiration to being abandoned and forgotten.
Vivian Liberto was 17-years-old when she and Cash met and fell in love. He was serving in the Air Force. She was in school. They wrote deeply personal letters to each other every day. Shortly after he returned home, they married. And within six years, Vivian gave birth to four girls.
These four daughters are the only people Riddlehoover interviews for “My Darling Vivian”. And it’s such a smart decision. We get an inside look at the family dynamic from those who witnessed it first hand. Each of the women – Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy and Tara — provide insights and opinion on their mother. At times their perspectives differ (because of their varying ages) but most of their memories are remarkably similar.
And the one thing they all agree on: their mother’s life is worth honoring. While Johnny was becoming a country music star, constantly away from home on tour, Vivian was left to raise the four young children on her own, more often in isolated locations. Once Cash became addicted to pills he would disappear for months at a time. At times the stress on Vivian was overwhelming — but she refused to crack.
Early photos of Vivian and Johnny and never-before-seen home movies of the Cash family help elevate this doc to gold medal status. Some of the stories the daughters tell are sweet and funny, but the bulk of “My Darling Vivian” is a somber, intense look at a person overlooked for far too long.
Vivian was caught-up in one of her husband’s low points, having to prove in court that she was White, not African American. And when Johnny began his affair with June Carter, Vivian was not only abandoned by her husband, but disowned by the entire Nashville community. And yet, she persevered.
Honesty and empathy pour out of the Cash daughters, particularly Rosanne, the oldest. Riddlehoover selects every soundbite with a purpose. The timeline of “My Darling Vivian” is presented in straight chronological order — which is refreshing. As the girls grew-up, so did their knowledge of what exactly was going on with their parents. The film serves as a discovery not only for us but them as well.
The daughters breathe new life into their mother, who passed away 15 years ago. Her death came just before to the release of “Walk the Line”. The movie (which won Reese Witherspoon an Oscar for playing Carter) does not portray Vivian positively or accurately. Her daughters believe that it would’ve broken their Mom’s heart if she had lived to see it.
Don’t expect a lot of ugly, tabloid details. This is a celebration of a remarkable life, not a scandal-filled expose. “My Darling Vivian” is gentle, yet it bursts with emotion. It is the most insightful and successful documentary of the year, so far. The film is being released (for now) through Virtual Cinemas. Check and see if one of your local independent theaters is offering it online.
LCJ GRADE: A
Running Time: 90 min.