American music has a story. Johnny Cash met June Carter, and it was a tumultuous love affair that turned into a life-long partnership. And somewhere vaguely in the background was his first wife, Vivian. In the story Nashville tells, she's an inconvenience, a glitch before true love and domestic happiness. Hell, Ginnifer Goodwin's performance in Walk the Line turned her into a full-fledged villain, the woman who almost destroyed a musical career by demanding that he stayed home. How dare she, the story goes.
The reality is that Vivian Cash, née Vivian Dorraine Liberto, was married to the musician for 13 years, and raised their four children – Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy, and Tara – pretty much single-handedly while he was on the road. Even after they divorced, she was always the other Mrs. Cash. What a burden. What a cost.
Director Riddlehoover's measured and earnest documentary doesn't overthrow other works like Thom Zimny's excellent The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash (itself much more sanctioned by the Carter-Cash estate), but rather to provide a balance. Vivian wasn't a bit player, he argues, but a central element of Cash's life, even after they split.
Riddlehoover's greatest insight is in letting the daughters tell the story. Vivian died in 2005, and her autobiography, I Walked the Line, came and went with barely a whisper, so letting those closest to her be her voice is fitting – especially since it is their story too. Initially, letting them have their say makes it seem like Vivian slips even further into the background of the story. Instead, she is caught from different angles. As the oldest daughter, Rosanne's relationship to her was completely different to that of little baby Tara, and there is real power in having their contrasting recollections of their mother fill in the light and shade of a deeply private and wounded woman.
The only undoubtedly unifying view they all hold is the latent bitterness towards "the other woman," especially when they felt they were becoming set dressing in the Johnny'n'June story. After all, it wasn't June that was shooting rattlesnakes on the porch when dad was on tour, or flying to El Paso to bail him out when he was loaded and caught smuggling speed in from Mexico, or running from the KKK because of one misprinted photograph. Vivian signed up to be with a musician who said he loved her, not a life blinded by the periphery of the spotlight. Together, Riddlehoover and the four Cash-Liberto daughters give her the dignity of reminding the world that hers, tragically as it ended, was a love story too.My Darling Vivian is currently available via Alamo on Demand (rent it here).
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