SXSW 2020: My Darling Vivian

Vivian Liberto and Johnny Cash. Photo credit: Estate of Vivian Distin.

My Darling Vivian offers a new perspective on the life of Johnny Cash’s first wife, Vivian Liberto, through accounts shared by their four children.

Take everything you know from Walk the Line and pretend it never happened.  Think of the film as a myth with all the illusions now currently shattered in front of your eyes.  After viewing this documentary, one cannot watch the film in the same light ever again.  It should certainly make your stomach churn at the depiction of Johnny and Vivian’s relationship.  In watching My Darling Vivian, we get the real story.

Imagine being the child of Johnny Cash.  Now imagine being the child of his first wife, Vivian.  In watching this film, you’ll begin to look at their lives from a different perspective.  Or at least, this is the hope.  Fans are used to hearing about the myth and legend behind the man.  But what about the real story?  How does it differ from the myth?  Well, we get the answers in this film.  That is, if one never read Vivian Liberto’s memoir.  What we see in the documentary is a love story between Vivian and Johnny.  At the same time, it’s a story of isolation, fear, and more.

Rosanne Cash, Kathy Cash Tittle, Cindy Cash, Tara Cash Schwoebel are Johnny and Vivian’s children.  They give us an inside look at their parents.  What did it mean for them when Johnny Cash spent so much time on the road?  More importantly, how did Vivian deal with raising four children–all under the age of six–while Johnny was away?  This sort of thing–as one might imagine–takes a toll on a parent.

There’s a letter addressed from Vivian to Johnny discovered shortly after Vivian’s 2005 death.  Perhaps it might have changed things.  It had to do with June Carter Cash referring to Vivian’s daughters as her own.  One could see how terribly upsetting it was to Vivian.  Maybe Johnny would have obliged had the letter been sent.  We’ll never truly know.

The film lets us in on something that wasn’t seen when Johnny Cash’s memorial service aired on television.  Rodney Crowell sang a song and dedicated it to Vivian.  However, you wouldn’t know this by watching on TV because it was cut for broadcast.

One can get a sense of how personal this film is for filmmaker Matt Riddlehoover.  As a filmmaker, he’s not too far away from the film’s subject.  It just so happens that Kathy Cash Tittle is Riddlehoover’s mother-in-law.  As such, this makes him such a filmmaker to tell the family’s story.  It also plays advantage in getting the trust of interview subjects, too.

If there’s a legacy to My Darling Vivian, let it be that more people know about Vivian.  In viewing the film, it makes me upset how she was thrown into this sort of negative obscurity following her divorce to Johnny Cash in 1966.

DIRECTOR:  Matt Riddlehoover
FEATURING:  Rosanne Cash, Kathy Cash Tittle, Cindy Cash, Tara Cash Schwoebel, Vivian Liberto, Johnny Cash

My Darling Vivian holds its world premiere during the 2020 SXSW Film Festival in the 24 Beats Per Second program. Grade: 4/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.