Review by Sean Boelman
Detailing the relationship between Johnny Cash and his first wife Vivian Liberto, My Darling Vivian takes an interesting perspective on the life of the music legend. An entertaining, if sometimes underdeveloped documentary, this film is nonetheless essential viewing for fans of the country music icon.
The movie tells the story of Vivian Liberto, who met Johnny Cash at a young age and became his first wife and mother to four of his children. It is interesting to see this portion of Cash’s life depicted on film because most biographies (including the biopic Walk the Line) focus more on the time after he met (and eventually married) June Carter.
Something about this movie that may rub viewers the wrong way is that it is very concerned with disproving myths regarding Cash’s relationship with Liberto. Because this portion of Cash’s life is less frequently documented, there’s been a lot of speculation, and at times, it feels like Liberto’s family is simply trying to turn the tables on Cash rather than setting the record straight.
That said, the film will prove to be of tremendous interest to anyone who is a fan of Cash. By exploring Cash’s life from the perspective of those who knew him the most, his children, this movie promises an element of honesty unlike biographies of the past. Additionally, the film features some of Cash’s own words in the form of correspondence he shared with Liberto while he was serving overseas in the war.
However, director Matt Riddlehoover does lose track of the movie at times. The title implies that this is a documentary about Vivian Liberto, but more often than not, it feels like a documentary about the early portion of Johnny Cash’s life. While it is understandable why Riddlehoover took this route (it’s much more easily marketable), it is admittedly a bit disappointing.
Granted, there are some portions of the film that explore Liberto’s life before and after her relationship with Cash, but even those are framed in the shadow of the superstar. When their children are discussing Liberto’s second marriage, they discuss it in terms of how Cash’s departure made Liberto feel desperate to find someone.
Riddlehoover’s execution is definitely very strong and done in a way as to make the movie as generally audience-friendly as possible. The film is told mostly through archive materials and interviews from Cash and Liberto’s children, which solidify the movie as very informative. Of course, some of Cash’s iconic tunes make a welcome appearance on the soundtrack, but they don’t dominate the film.
My Darling Vivian offers some interesting insight into Johnny Cash’s life, but it doesn’t fulfill its promise as a documentary about Vivian Liberto. Still, it is well-made all-around and a breezy enough watch.
My Darling Vivian was set to debut at the cancelled 2020 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.