Matt Riddlehoover’s My Darling Vivian Review
By John Saeger
The relationship between June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash is one of the most publicized flings in music history, often taking on a Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor mythology. Prior to their liaison and his rise to stardom, Cash was married to Vivian Liberto. The documentary My Darling Vivian explores the lesser-known history of Cash’s first wife and lends important insight into the singer’s early days.
Directed by Matt Riddlehoover, the story of My Darling Vivian is told through Liberto and Cash’s four daughters. The film is complemented by a cache of photographs, home videos, and intimate letters between the couple. The supporting media also includes video clips from early tours with Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Audio recordings sent to Liberto during their courtship reveal a lovestruck Cash that runs contrary to the cool demeanor he often portrayed as a performer.
This combination of storytelling brings to light a marriage filled with emotional swings and peels away the complex layers of the superstar’s dark side. By opening up their archives and lives, the documentary discloses an admirable woman whose life is neglected by the public narrative of Cash’s life.
The most prominent instance of this false chronology was the 2005 biopic Walk The Line. The movie’s story arc swung on the flame of the Carter-Cash relationship, resulting in five Oscar nominations and a Best Actress statuette for Reese Withersoon. While Johnny Cash was not portrayed in the most flattering light, the film’s reverence for June over Vivian is shown to have a few important inaccuracies.
The most glaring omission from Walk The Line that is explored in My Darling Vivian shines light on troubles that Liberto encountered because of her skin complexion. A woman of Italian descent with dark skin, a misleading newspaper photo of Liberto and Cash together sparked a controversy over her ethnicity. Outrage over the fallacy led to Cash’s inability to tour in the South and white supremacist threats against the family forced Liberto to “prove” her ethnicity publicly.
My Darling Vivian also explores Johnny Cash’s personal demons from the perspectives of those who had to live with the reality of his addictions. The height of his drug use created chaos in the family’s life when he was at home, something that became an increasing rarity through his touring lifestyle and as he fell for June Carter. Watching the film reveal this side of the Man in Black allows the romanticized aspect of the Cash-Carter relationship to fade.
This revelatory aspect of the film presents two stories that are worthy of including in Johnny Cash’s personal history: the damage done by Cash’s chaotic lifestyle and the unheralded woman who held his family life together. By exploring these points, My Darling Vivian succeeds in creating a new way of looking at Cash and bolstering the memory of a woman who has been ignored. Telling a compelling story from a purely domestic point-of-view is not often the most compelling material for a documentary, but the relative unknown of Vivian Liberto is a powerful film. Their willingness to share the uncomfortable aspects of their early lives is an effective tribute to the memory of a woman they are seeking to honor.
About the Author: John Saeger is a music and film writer from Philadelphia. He has written the pop-culture blog Long After Dark, a site dedicated to the arts in the City of Brotherly Love and beyond, since 2017. Twitter Facebook Instagram