SXSW began as a music festival and the films (and the ED, MED, Games, et al.) came later. One of the things I’ve enjoyed about the conference since I began covering it in 2012, are the “24 Beats Per Second” films – films about music and musicians.
My Darling Vivian, produced and directed by Matt Riddlehoover, takes viewers into the life of Johnny Cash’s first wife Vivian Liberto. Ironically, as I began to write this review, I considered starting it something like, “I thought I knew all about Johnny Cash. I was wrong.” I had forgotten that I started a review of a SXSW film about Cash like that last year. But learning more about the music and musicians is why these “24 Beats Per Second” films get made.
Layers of the Onion
This film is not about Johnny Cash directly. It is the story of Vivian, the young lady who was lucky, or unlucky, enough to meet young, unknown Johnny and become his wife. The film does, however, along the way reveal many things about the Man in Black.
As a pre-teen, I remember my parents watching country music TV shows in which Cash appeared. I thought I knew Johnny Cash. When I saw Walk the Line in 2005, I thought, “Now I know Johnny Cash.” It was just another layer of the onion, as was last year’s The Journey of Johnny Cash and this year’s film, My Darling Vivian.
A Story Hidden
One of the revealing moments in this film is an excerpt from a Grand Ole Opry tribute show done for Cash after his death. One of the performers dedicated a song to Vivian who was in the audience at the Ryman Auditorium. That moment was cut from the televised version of the concert. It didn’t fit with the sanitized “Johnny and June” story which the music industry had blessed.
My Darling Vivian finally fills in everything missing from the story.
Riddlehoover takes a classic approach to biographical documentaries. The four daughters that Vivian and Johnny brought into the world tell their mom’s story. The director switches between Rosanne Cash, Kathy Cash Tittle, Cindy Cash, and Tara Cash Schwoebel speaking and shots of family photos and films.
This is a typical approach, but the wealth of material that the daughters made available allowed the director to raise this to a new level of artistry. Besides the photos, Vivian and Johnny wrote hundreds of letters to one another, and the filmmaker highlights parts of the letters where they illuminate the story.
Beyond that are the many clips from TV shows and films which are included at just the right time. One thing that I found particularly creative, Riddlehoover included clips of films of other people, not in a deceptive way, but in order to illustrate the culture of the time.
Also, in the 1950s and 60s, people would record reel-to-reel tapes and send recorded letters to each other. Excerpts from these add to the intimate feel of the story.
We learn about Vivian’s childhood, how she met Johnny, their happy early years, and when things went wrong. There are lessons about commitment, loneliness, drugs, and alcoholism. But there are also lessons about the importance of family and the strength of love.
Riddlehoover has created a powerfully touching film. And, if “Folsom Prison Blues” is burned into your memory, like it is mine, you need to see this film. It is the final layer of the onion.
(Photos courtesy of the film)