Two years after his death, the 2005 film Walk the Line put Johnny Cash’s story onscreen, dramatizing his rise to fame and the larger-than-life love affair he shared with June Carter. The film garnered widespread acclaim and five Academy Award nominations, including a win for Reese Witherspoon as Carter, but what many people outside of Cash’s circles of fans may not remember – or may not even know at all – is that the marriage that reportedly saved Cash’s life was not his first.
That honor instead belongs to Vivian Liberto, a figure who is rather unceremoniously brushed aside not only in her appearance in Walk the Line (she’s portrayed in the film by Ginnifer Goodwin) but in almost all of the history that surrounds Johnny Cash and his legacy. However, Liberto finally gets to have her story told – at least somewhat – with the release of My Darling Vivian. The documentaryframes itself through the points-of-view of Cash and Liberto’s four daughters: Roseanne, Kathy, Cindy, and Tara. Together, they plus director Matt Riddlehoover attempt to tell Vivian’s story in full, from her chance meeting with Cash at a roller skating rink as a teenager to Liberto and Cash’s intense twelve-year relationship that slowly crumbled as the latter’s career took off.
Once Riddlehoover finds the movie’s groove, Vivian’s story carries a rather profound sense of sadness. It’s easy to empathize with her as the four daughters recount Vivian’s struggles in raising not four children, but also tending to a practically oversized home and dealing with the physical and psychological aspects of celebrity that come with being the wife of Johnny Cash – all single-handedly, of course, as Cash was on tour for months at a time. At a point, we’re informed of a potentially life-threatening scandal when an underexposed newspaper photograph led the public to believe that Liberto was black rather than Sicilian-American, and, perhaps most heartbreakingly, a song dedicated to Vivian at Cash’s memorial service – a service she personally attended – was cut from the television broadcast.
The problem with My Darling Vivian, though, is one that likely permeates through any media related to Johnny Cash: even nearly two decades after his death, Cash remains such a monumental figure that his presence constantly looms. As such, there’s an unmissable feeling that the film is delving into the life of Cash just as much as it is into the life of Liberto, if not more so. By the time credits roll, we know who Vivian Liberto is in an overarching sense, but the portrait of the woman beyond that falls disappointingly short.
Unfortunately, the documentary’s visual presentation does it no favors either: the entire film alternates between interview footage of Vivian’s four daughters and restored (and largely never-before-seen) still images superimposed onscreen, with the occasional home video spliced in. Several factors necessitate this style of documentary filmmaking – Liberto passed away in 2005, and bringing in other interviewees may have found the film drifting even farther from Vivian’s story – but strictly as a viewing experience, there’s a repetitiveness to Riddlehoover’s directorial approach. We hear Liberto speak on video just once during the film; it’s a powerful moment, but suddenly the lack of it elsewhere in the documentary feels like a wasted opportunity.
But, above all, Vivian’s story just doesn’t seem to carry enough material for a full feature – at least, not the material gathered by Riddlehoover for this particular film. The movieruns only 89 minutes, but feels stretched quite thin to reach that mark: the strongest moments in Vivian’s story largely exist within the middle act, making up maybe half of that runtime. The rest of the film finds itself lacking in the momentum to get to those points organically and to wrap up the story with that act’s same emotional consistency. The nature of My Darling Vivian itself is valiant, a commendable and respectable effort that hopefully leads to a stronger acknowledgment of Vivian Liberto’s presence within the life story of Johnny Cash; as an exercise in documentary filmmaking, it’s largely imperfect.