My Darling Vivian: Film Review And Q&A

My Darling Vivian is a new documentary now available to watch free on Prime Video through May 6th as one of the selected films for the 2020 SXSW Film Festival Collection. It's an account of Vivian Liberto, Johnny Cash's first wife, as narrated by their four daughters: Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy and Tara. I watched the film with my twin sister Sheryl and was so moved by it that not only did I want to write about my experience, I wanted to reach out to the creators.

It's an honor to introduce two special guests who have agreed to do a Q&A with me to provide audiences with more insight into the film: Producer Dustin Tittle, grandson of Johnny and Vivian Cash, and husband Director Matt Riddlehoover. They're incredibly busy as the film gains momentum, so their willingness to take this time to share is sincerely appreciated!

Dustin and Matt, the couple and creative team behind My Darling Vivian.

Sherry // What's one of your favorite memories of your grandmother?

Dustin // Given my age, I’m lucky to have a lot of memories of my grandmother. One of my favorites is Christmas of 1989 or 1990. She lived outside of Los Angeles, California, and I grew up just outside of Nashville. That Christmas, she sent a box of presents for myself, my sister, and my brother, and we got to open one present each day in the 12 days leading up to Christmas. It was Grandma’s version of “The 12 Days of Christmas,” and was her way to be present for her grandchildren in a way that she physically wasn’t able.

Sherry // How does her story shape who you are?

Dustin // She was so private that there were a number of things I didn’t know about her until I read her book. Unfortunately, her book came out after she passed away, so it was bittersweet in that I didn’t have the opportunity to talk to her about any of it. For me, I think it’s more like “how does her story shape who you want to be?” She had a strength and a resolve that’s nearly unfathomable to me.

Sherry // What do you see as your role in the future of the Cash family legacy?

Dustin // What a heavy question. I think the legacy that would be most important to both of my grandparents would be their family. The best that I can do is wake up everyday and try my hardest to live by the values that they showed me and that their children continue to show me. Be honest, be unafraid, and know the difference between right and wrong... and choose right.

Sherry // How did your journey begin with My Darling Vivian?

Matt // I was contemplating moving from narrative feature films to documentaries. Dustin and I approached a dear friend who’s had a very interesting, colorful life, and asked if we could do a documentary about her. She wanted absolutely nothing to do with the idea and suggested we do a documentary about Vivian. It seemed such a huge responsibility that Dustin and I discussed it for a few weeks and ultimately decided we’d only go ahead if all four of her daughters blessed it. Within 24 hours, they were all on board.

Sherry // What do you hope the film achieves with general audiences and the Cash fan base? What's next on your schedule?

Matt // I just hope that people are receptive to Vivian's story. So far, the response has been incredible. People from all over the country are writing us. Beyond the SXSW 2020 Film Festival Collection event with Amazon, we're going to continue to have as "traditional" a festival season as we can while in person gatherings are closed. More of these virtual events worldwide followed by, hopefully, a release in the autumn or winter.

Thank you, Dustin and Matt. I love the film and look forward to following your success. I hope you enjoy my review and find its points valid and interesting. Read on!

Featuring a script with rare family footage, expertly sourced media from the era and a narrative of matriarchal chronology intertwined with interviews from four daughters, this story is told so intimately that you feel you've been transported to their mid-century dwelling. Vivian is like Marmee from Little Women, leading and watching over her quartet. My Darling Vivian has tremendous power as a human-interest piece and its broad appeal has something to offer every viewer, whether or not they're versed in the world of Johnny Cash.

It holds the legendary artist accountable for the abandonment of his wife and daughters in a way that's honest and fair, citing his own actions and admissions. While it's often an intense and tragic telling, Vivian, a woman omitted from the Cash narrative by Nashville and misrepresented in Walk the Line (2005), emerges as a triumphant heroine entirely of her own making. And she loved Johnny through it all.

First-born daughter Rosanne Cash, who bears a striking resemblance to her mother, is a central figure in My Darling Vivian. My sister and I were filmed in her music video for The Walking Wounded during the inaugural Johnny Cash Heritage Festival at her father's boyhood home. My Darling Vivian gives this song and its message new meaning and perspective. Read "Channeling Cash, Poet Laureate Of The Walking Wounded" to learn more about my experience.

My Darling Vivian is an awe-inspiring work of vindication. It's a case study that champions the enduring strength of womankind as an indictment on the patriarchal slant of music history and the entertainment business that continues today. While I was aware that her portrayal in Walk the Line was inaccurate because her daughters voiced public disapproval, I didn't know the whole story. Johnny and June passed away in 2003 and Vivian in 2005, six months before the film's premiere.

Vivian's memoir, I Walked the Line: My Life with Johnny, was published posthumously less than two years after James Mangold's biopic. To a degree, Vivian's book was eclipsed by Walk the Line's popularity and once again, even in death, was silenced by popular culture's decades-long love affair with Johnny and second wife, June Carter. This was only compounded by the fact that Johnny wrote the song "I Walk the Line" for Vivian, which was released today, May 1st, in 1956 by Sun Records in Memphis.

While the success of Walk the Line has undoubtedly done a great deal for Johnny Cash in creating new generations of fans and initiatives, including the restoration of his childhood home, all of which would make Vivian proud, it also delivered a misleading first impression of her that largely went unchecked for 15 years and as a result had time to marinate in public consciousness. Until now.

I recognize the tremendous value of biopics as vehicles to introduce audiences to music history. After all, they were a catalyst for my own passion and Walk the Line certainly played a role in establishing my interest in Cash. But I also understand the price of dramatic license which can compromise historical integrity and have lasting consequences for artists, families and associated others. Biopics have the power to completely modify public perception for decades. And this is especially dangerous now during a time when history is being threatened in an unprecedented way through widespread denialism and falsification.

Like all biopics, Walk the Line wears an asterisk because it blurs the lines. That's entertainment. I adore Joaquin Phoenix's portrayal of Cash. We can enjoy the music and fantastical façade of great acting as long as we remember to retreat into the history with the dignified priority it deserves. Biopics are a point of entry. That's their part. To draw audiences in and send them on a journey of discovery. Every biopic (Walk the Line) has an addendum (My Darling Vivian) that's richer and fuller because it represents real, unscripted life. Being imperfect is a part of being human. And those imperfections give history timeless relevance.

A purist may argue that biopics are a disservice to the history, but they lose the argument handily because they're a proven powerhouse in service to its preservation.

My Darling Vivian delivers an honest and raw portrayal of a family torn apart by fame that ultimately ends in a kind of absolution that's entirely unique to this story. Vivian deserves her rightful place in the Cash legacy because it was her support, love, management of home life and tremendous discretion about their broken marriage that allowed Johnny to thrive and achieve celebrity in those early years.

As a music historian and preservationist, I'm encouraged by what My Darling Vivian represents for the future: more inclusiveness in a world where history continues to be largely presented from a singular perspective. It's an awakening of the untold story of stardom's casualties in the context of hearth and home. My Darling Vivian flips the script on the Cash biography by bringing female viewpoints into the foreground and in doing so, becomes a voice for the greater recognition of those marginalized and forgotten in the pages of time.



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