Runtime: 90 minutes
Director: Matt Riddlehoover
Stars: Rosanne Cash, Cindy Cash, Tara Cash, Kathy Cash
By Mique Watson
History is replete with stories of the silent women behind their rich, famous husbands; mere specters looming in the background. Likewise, innumerable stories of this sort have been widely ignored–here, we offered remuneration for one. The woman in question here is Vivian Liberto–heard of her? I know I hadn’t prior to this. She just happens to be the first wife–and biological mother of four children–of country singer extraordinaire Johnny Cash. This is the Johnny Cash story from Vivian’s perspective, told in a series of interviews of their four daughters (one of them being Rosanne Cash, who also went on to have a formative singing career).
This is an enthralling, incisive look at a damaged woman forced to be strong and keep her problems to herself– perhaps as a consequence of the generation she grew up with and the company with whom she chose to associate. She lived her truth; a truth she–for most of her life–opted to keep to herself. She let her husband’s fame kill her spirit, and that is all right here in this astonishing documentary. Vivian Liberto might not have been famous, she lived a very private life; and here, via her children and filmmaker Mat Riddlehoover, is the undisguised truth of the matter.
Riddlehoover has a personal connection to this tale: his partner, Dustin, Tittle is one of Cash and Liberto’s grandchildren. This has afforded him access to first hand sources; namely, Vivian’s four daughters, each with distinct accounts of both their parents and how the specific time they were born had a bearing on their upbringing. An upbringing which was mostly ignored or distorted by the media in the favor of sensationalist invective geared toward Liberto. In the media’s eyes, Vivian was Johnny’s problematic ex-wife and June was his savior.
“This is an enthralling, incisive look at a damaged woman forced to be strong and keep her problems to herself– perhaps as a consequence of the generation she grew up with and the company with whom she chose to associate.”
We are given a sense of who Vivian was prior to being Johnny’s wife for over a decade. We grasp how such a private woman preferred to be away from the spotlight. She was deeply damaged; raised under the iron fist of an austere Catholic father who etched the concept of mortal sin deep into her psyche at a young, naive age.
She met Johnny as an anxious, damaged woman. In many demonstrable ways, his relationship with her was helpful; there are adorable accounts of how they first met, told with unique nuances based on the recollection of each of the four daughters. Handwritten letters and audio recordings of Johnny Cash himself professing his love for her with words so sweet your heart weighs heavy because you know what is to follow. They eventually married in August of 1954, and started with humble beginnings; despite the lack of fame and fortune, these times were the “happiest years of her life”.
“This is a portrait of a once impenetrable woman who had lost true self to the world’s idealized perception of her.”
These semi-historical accounts are detailed with gorgeously restored vintage home videos of Vivien and her family; from when she was a child, up until her final years. All heightened by a lachrymose, intimate score; a score that aches with longing for a simple, happy long life. A life that could’ve been, had fame, fortune, and vice not been in the equation. This quiet, peaceful suburban life just about capsized when Johnny’s singing career began to take flight; seemingly overnight, he was constantly out of the house and mostly unheard from. While Vivian played the role of the housewife, Johnny was performing alongside Elvis Pressley. It was at this time that he wrote and recorded “Walk the Line”; a song written and sung for Vivien.
This is a portrait of a once impenetrable woman who had lost true self to the world’s idealized perception of her. This life gradually chipped at her very person; she lost weight, hardly slept, and relapsed back into her perpetually anxious state. A state of such angst, she had even convinced one of them that she was suicidal. A young child should never have to worry about, or even consider the idea of a parent comitting suicide. This documentary serves as a requiem for her, but also a condemnation of all the players involved: the media, her abusive upbringing, and the unsympathetic expectations everyone had of her.
Her personal story, her lived truths were robbed from her by the media who mostly covered her, if at all, as “the wife”. What is unmentioned is just how much of the family’s upkeep she had to shoulder in Johnny’s presence, or lack thereof. And when he was present, he was on drugs; but such is the price of fame at any cost. Fame in the 60’s meant being exposed to all kinds of vices: sex, drugs, alcohol–you name it. And Vivien was, in all but name, a single mother doing her best to shelter her children from their father’s deterioration.
How was she rewarded for this, you might ask? Her life was unlawfully publicized by the media who so willingly framed her unjustly and contemptuously. One disgusting article even managed to accuse her of being black (she’s Italian-American); not that there’s anything wrong with this, but mind you, this was in the 60’s, when the threat of white supremacy and racism was pretty much ingrained into the US’s penal system. African Americans were systematically discriminated against. While Johnny was touring on the road–oblivious to his family and wife’s state of mind–she was home with her children literally ,living in fear of the KKK.
“This is one of the most emotionally enrapturing films I’ve seen this year. It is a condemnation of the interest the media has in the lives of these famous people, and the money they make off them.”
Eventually, this toxicity took its toll, and the two divorced. Though it is tragically obvious that, despite him being with June, Vivian loved and heeded him in almost everything. This divorce was frowned upon by the church; she was subsequently excommunicated and banned from receiving communion, despite religiously attending Sunday service and volunteering.
Eventually she wrote a book about her life; a book where she purports to have revealed things that she had previously shared with no one–not even her daughters. Of course, because it pushed back against the narrative the media had constructed over time (which eventually turned into the Joaquin Phoenix-starring film, “Walk the Line” which, by the way, was disavowed by Vivian’s children), the press seemingly had no interest in promoting it. We see here that no one cared.
This is one of the most emotionally enrapturing films I’ve seen this year. It is a condemnation of the interest the media has in the lives of these famous people, and the money they make off them. This is an immensely moving account of a woman’s secret history which looms with tragedy; it is at times maddening in its portrayal of how fame occludes things which matter in life, and how innocent people are the collateral damage. I had no clue who Vivien Liberto was prior to seeing things; but as the documentary concluded, I felt, immensely, that justice had been granted to the story of this incredible woman.