The romance between Johnny and June Carter Cash is one of the most storied romances in all of music history. For decades, you could hardly think of one without thinking of the other. It felt, somehow, right when Johnny died just four months after June in 2003, the kind of tragically romantic end that punctuates their long marriage. It’s poetic, in a way.
So deep was there love that history has almost forgotten Johnny’s first great love, Vivian Liberto, for whom the song “I Walk the Line” was written. Any memory of her today stems, for the most part, from her portrayal in 2005’s “Walk the Line.” Played by Ginnifer Goodwin, she’s seen there as something of a vicious shrew who tried to hold her husband back not just from his career but from his one true love, June.
It was an unfair portrait to paint, even if it did make for a more dramatic movie. Vivian was the woman who first caught Johnny’s heart, waited for him while he served his country, was there for him as his star began to rise, and who bore him four daughters. Hers is a far more fascinating and nuanced story than Hollywood, which so often tells the dumbed down, simplistic version of real-life tales, could ever hope to show us.
Director Matt Riddlehoover seeks to set the record straight in his new documentary, My Darling Vivian. It is a fascinating, intimate film that seeks to correct the record and, in the process, tells the story of Johnny Cash from another perspective. Told through interviews with Vivian’s and Johnny’s daughters, Roseanne, Cathy, Cindy, and Tara, My Darling Vivian is a stunningly open and heartfelt tribute to a woman history seemed content to forget.
The story starts at a San Antonio roller rink, where a young Cash was stationed for training in the Air Force. It was there the two young lovers would meet and would spark a love that, in many respects, lasted a lifetime. We get a taste of their romance through the letters shared between the two while he stationed overseas. We see in them the hopes of teenage dreamers, spilling forth the kind of love only seems possible in the young.
While we know what happens, vis a vis the near mythic legend surrounding Johnny and June, we only know it from one side which, as we learn, is a side that was well-developed and seemingly designed to push the memory of Vivian completely out of the picture. There’s an undeniably tragedy to her tale, especially told, as it is, by her daughters.
And yet, we also see a portrait of a woman who refused to be defined by her tragedies. Vivian was an incredibly strong and brave woman, who fought against public perceptions and attempts to erase her. She wasn’t always successful but she stood her ground and never let her history get the better of her.
It’s no wonder she raised the four daughters that she did, all of whom are strong in their own ways. Hearing them tell their mother’s story is a poignant and moving experience that, in many respects, reframes what we though we knew about their father.
Riddlehoover has assembled a truly moving work that honors the memory and the life of a woman who, in many ways, made it possible for Johnny Cash to become Johnny Cash. She raised his children while he was on the road, she raised his children while he married June, she raised his children while she was beset by threats and fans looking to try and meet their idol. My Darling Vivian is as perfect a tribute as she could have hoped for and, hopefully, sets the record straight for old fans and new fans alike.