My Darling Vivian  Web only, 2020, 3 ¼ stars

Vivian’s story

Documentary gives a voice to Johnny Cash’s first wife

Image courtesy IMDB and copyright The Film Collaborative

Exclusive to MeierMovies, June 17, 2020

“I find it very, very easy to be true. I find myself alone when each day is through. Yes, I’ll admit that I’m a fool for you. Because you’re mine, I walk the line.”

Johnny Cash sang those lyrics in 1956, and their simple sentiment – not to mention the infectious voice and guitar that accompanied them – gave the soon-to-be legendary musical artist his first #1 hit on Billboard’s country charts. But in the years that followed, after Cash divorced his first wife and embraced a very public romantic and musical relationship with June Carter, the world forgot the person who inspired those heartfelt words.

That person is, of course, Vivian Liberto Cash, Johnny’s first wife. But her true story has been mostly lost to time. The 2005 film Walk the Line did little to bring her real life to light. Neither did Vivian’s own 2007 memoir, I Walked the Line, as few people read it.

I suppose it’s fitting, then, that Vivian and Johnny’s four daughters take up the tale. And that’s just what they do in My Darling Vivian, a new documentary by director Matt Riddlehoover. Known mostly for narrative fiction, Riddlehoover previously directed just one doc, Gaze (2010). But he handles the subject matter competently, if not particularly stylistically.

At its core, the doc is a simple, talking-heads profile of Vivian, with lots of old footage, but it’s important to note who the talking heads are. They are the couple’s aforementioned daughters: Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy and Tara. The film might have benefited from a larger scope, and Riddlehoover keeps his interviewees strangely separate. However, the film’s honesty and integrity are palpable because the director has picked the perfect interviewees to tell this long-delayed tale. And they tell it with tenderness and small but surprisingly revelatory details.

To its credit, the film doesn’t trash Cash. Neither does it exist to rewrite history with a feminist twist. Though it makes painfully clear what we knew all along – Johnny did not actually walk the line – it never tears down the legend (at least no more than he tore himself down via drugs and infidelity). Instead, it strives to give Vivian an equal say in the couple’s relationship – and in history.

The movie was scheduled to premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival back in April, until that event was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it still managed to reach audiences through online events held by SXSW and other festivals. Now it’s available, by streaming (and one would presume eventually by disc), to a larger audience. Vivian deserves it.

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