I love Johnny Cash. I’ve loved him since high school, listening to the Essential compilation and picking up random records of his that I would find in antique stores. I remember when the trailer for Logan came out, perfectly utilizing Cash’s version of “Hurt” to set the tone for one of my favorite movies of the last decade. If you drop a Cash track in a movie I’ll probably love it, is what I’m saying. When the South by Southwest and Amazon Prime partnership was announced, this was one of the first films they revealed and I was incredibly on board. While a binge of all of the short films is still in order, the SXSW at-home festival is off to a great start.
The film follows the accounts of Cash’s four daughters by his first wife, Vivian Liberto. These women tell the story of her mother, who was rarely in the public eye (we’ll get to the exception) during her life. A plethora of home footage and detailed, rarely contradictory accounts from her four children paint a beautiful and tragic picture of Liberto. It starts out sweet and nostalgic, with the romance and marriage of Cash and Vivian in the 50s. The way that the four daughters speak of those initial years are as if Vivian herself was telling the story. The love letters and the account of the wedding are absolutely magical. The filmmaking compiles photographs, home footage, old family stories from the daughters, and letters between Vivian and Cash to create an elegant recollection of a part of music history I had no knowledge of. The four quickly decry portrayals of Vivian in other media, particularly Walk the Line, a film more about the legendary relationship between Johnny and June Carter that needed to get Vivian out of the way by portraying her as a catty housewife trying to keep a leash on Cash. In reality Vivian was a normal woman whose husband became famous after they were married, left to raise four children by herself after fame and fortune came calling. The four clearly have an animosity for the portrayal of their mother.
The film gets even more compelling after the golden years of Vivian and Cash’s marriage pass. Cash gets caught up in drugs while touring around the country, rarely coming home to see his wife and children. Run-ins with Bob Dylan and Waylon Jennings are brought up, both seemingly figures of resentment for the daughters. Even with that said, the film is less of an indictment of Cash’s behavior than an attempt to bring Vivian’s full story to light. Vivian becomes a lonely recluse, staying away from the public eye even as she lives in Hollywood. The film gets downright tragic when a media craze is brought up about Vivian and Cash that threatens to end his career and puts her in grave danger, a surprisingly dark streak in an already tragic story. When June Carter finally comes into the picture, the film gets downright nasty. This is the most jarring element for me, as country music history has always held Johnny and June up as the tentpole relationship. Vivian files for divorce, allowing Johnny and June to be together and create history, leaving Vivian behind. The final chapter of the film focuses on Vivian’s life with her daughters as they became adults, separate from their father’s legacy. It’s a bittersweet series of events, but it ends with powerful and heartwarming final statements from the daughters.
While I loved the story being told in My Darling Vivian, the filmmaking leaves something to be desired. While the real footage of Vivian, Cash and others is well collected and displayed, the footage is largely removed from the context of the small stories being told and can feel tedious after a while. Director Matt Riddlehoover is playing it fairly transparent here, putting everything together but staying out of the way. My favorite documentaries (Cheer on Netflix is one recently that I found surprisingly engrossing) are ones where the filmmaking influences the story, or the other way around. My Darling Vivian is more of a lecture from these four daughters with the appropriate images inserted. Nevertheless, the story of Vivian Liberto is one worth hearing.