Some Hollywood and Nashville depictions of Johnny Cash's first wife Vivian Liberto paint her as a side note in the Man in Black's life or, in the case of the film Walk the Line, a hindrance to Cash's happily ever after marriage to June Carter.
Fortunately, the new documentary My Darling Vivian tells a fairer story through filmmakers Dustin Tittle (a grandson of Cash's) and Matt Riddlehoover's candid chats with Cash and Liberto's four daughters: Rosanne Cash, Cindy Cash, Tara Cash Schwoebel and Kathy Cash Tittle.
The documentary would've premiered at SXSW (South By Southwest) in March, had the Austin, Texas-based event not been cancelled due to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. Instead, it became available for a limited time (April 27- May 6) via Amazon Prime Video as part of its SXSW 2020 Film Festival Collection.
Here's five quick takeaways from the film.
The Couple Was Married for 13 Years
It seems pretty normal for spouses to drift apart after one becomes famous, especially if they met as teenagers. The latter description certainly fits a story that begins with an 18-year-old Air Force trainee in San Antonio, Texas winning over the girl who caught his eye at the skating rink. Yet Cash and Liberto's love story survived everything from him being shipped off to Germany to the early pressures of fame. The problems that ended a decade-plus marriage hinged on addiction, not the usual pitfalls of young love.
Rosanne Cash Wrote "I Was Watching You" About Her Parents Moving to Memphis
As many fans of the Cash family know, Rosanne wrote much of her 2006 album Black Cadillac about her father, mother and step-mother (June Carter Cash), all of whom passed away in a two-year span. This song in particular tells of her parents' move from Texas to Tennessee before wrestling with some of Rosanne's personal struggles with her dad. After watching the film, the song becomes an even more poignant reminder of a country music icon's lesser-known love story and its devastating end.
Johnny Cash Owned a Monkey
Like fellow Arkansas farm boy Glen Campbell, Cash fit in around Hollywood, partly because the latter was eccentric enough and free enough with his money to own a monkey. It's one of the few silly side notes from a heartbreaking film that deals with addiction, heartbreak and broken homes. To make this all the more surreal, the monkey and the Cash family lived in Johnny Carson's old house.
Hate Groups Believed That Liberto Was African American
Photographs of Liberto shot after Cash's 1965 drug arrest at the Mexican border led the Klan to misidentify (or knowingly lie about) a woman of Italian descent. Radical literature and hate mail followed, causing Liberto to fear for the safety of her daughters while Cash lost bookings. Some fans sent Liberto letters begging her to prove she's caucasian so Cash could play their towns again.
June Cash Overstated Her Role in the Lives of Cash's Daughters
The toughest part of the film to watch without crying comes when the Cash sisters discuss how their stepmother would go on TV shows and make it sound like she was raising all of her and Cash's children. In reality, the Cash sisters stayed with their mother until adulthood.
Liberto went as far to write an unsent letter to Cash, begging him to ask his wife to stop claiming children outside of her care.