(2020) Music Documentary (The Film Collaborative) Rosanne Cash, Tara Cash Schwoebel, Cindy Cash, Kathy Cash Tittle, Vivian Liberto, Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash. Directed by Matt Riddlehoover
We tend to mythologize our biggest stars. Their lives take on a quality that is spun by the inertia of tabloids and spin control. Often we get very one-sided portrayals of who they were and how they came to be.
Take Johnny Cash, for example. Most of us know him through his timeless music, country songs that have helped define American music over the years. Most of us know his story through the biofilm Walk the Line which justly won an Oscar for Reese Witherspoon. She played June Carter, who is depicted in the film as being the love of his life, the savior of him as he overcame his addictions. It is an American fairy tale romance.
Johnny was married before he met June, though, to a Sicilian-American woman named Vivian Liberto, whom he met in her hometown of San Antonio when she was 17 and he was 19. He was in the Air Force at the time and was soon after shipped off to Germany. That didn’t dim his ardor (or hers) any as he wrote more than a thousand letters, and sent her an engagement ring through the mail. Shortly after he came home, the two were married.
His career as a door-to-door salesman was unsuccessful and he decided to pursue a career in music. The couple moved to Memphis where they had no money and lived in a rundown apartment. However, he managed to get himself signed to Sun Records at a time where Sun was rewriting American popular music, with a line-up that included Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Cash found meteoric success and one of his first hit songs was “I Walk the Line,” written for Vivian.
Cash moved the family to pursue an acting career (as Elvis had before him) and eventually built a hilltop home in rural Casitas Springs north of L.A. The acting career fizzled, but Cash continued to be a hot commodity on the Billboard charts. He toured relentlessly, leaving Vivian in the house to take care of four daughters, all under six years old and one of them an infant.
On the road, Cash became hooked on amphetamines. His absences grew longer and longer and when he returned home, he was a changed man. Even his daughters noticed it. Vivian felt abandoned and the fights with her husband grew more vicious. Eventually, the couple divorced in 1966 and Cash took up with Carter, with whom he had been having an affair.
Vivian actually remarried before Cash did, to an ex-policeman. She wanted a man around because she didn’t feel safe. When Cash had been arrested in El Paso for bringing in pills from Mexico, she had gone there to bail him out. A newspaper picture captured her dark Sicilian complexion and full lips and many mistakenly thought she was an African-American. The backlash, particularly in the South, was enormous as interracial marriages were taboo in those days. She received death threats and in her isolated home stood vigil night after night, fully expecting an army of Klansmen to come to her door and murder her daughters.
But the mythology began to take hold as the years went by. Vivian had always been intensely private and rarely made public appearances while she was married to the country star. She began to be relegated to a role as a footnote in his career, so much so that when he died and a large tribute concert was thrown, she wasn’t mentioned except by former son-in-law Rodney Crowell and even that was edited out of the broadcast. Particularly galling was that Carter often took credit for raising the four daughters, when in fact she only saw them when they were visiting their dad.
Vivian didn’t live to see Walk the Line but her daughters did and were distressed, to put it mildly, to see her depicted as a whining, complaining lunatic who not only didn’t support her husband but drove him to drug use. It is all the more ironic since the title song was written for Vivian and not, as many have supposed, for June.
Most of this is told through the testimony of the four daughters which skews the narrative somewhat, but considering how short a shrift Vivian has gotten from history, is understandable. Even so, Vivian is not portrayed as a saint here – she had a temper and she could be cruel upon occasion. However, the girls certainly admire their mother and their love is plain throughout their interviews. We don’t hear much from outside the family other than through clips of archived interviews. We don’t even hear Vivian’s voice until near the end of the film.
Other than the interviews with the girls, the story is mostly told through archival footage, still photographs and home movies. Some of the home movies are fascinating as they usually are when it comes to catching people in the act of being themselves. We can see that Vivian had an exotic beauty, a cross between Sophia Loren and Jackie Kennedy, only with olive skin.
But her voice is plain to hear in other ways. Through the letters, many of which she published in an autobiography which didn’t sell very well (nobody likes to have their myths questioned), it is clear that Cash was deeply in love with her. It is also interesting to hear a recorded letter that he sent her, playing a song he wrote for her. She and Cash remained friends, particularly after Carter passed away, and near the end of his life, visited with the girls (Rosanne, who was on tour with her own band, was unable to attend).
This is a very different look at the life of a legend. While her life had its share of pain, there was an awful lot of love. The score of Ian A. Hughes is almost dirge-like and gives the documentary a funereal air it didn’t really need. This is obviously a labor of love (the producer is Vivian’s grandson and the director her grandson’s husband) and it’s a love that should be celebrated.
The film was set to premiere at South by Southwest in March until the festival was canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak. It is part of a selection of 35 films (both features and shorts) from the Festival that have been made available for viewing on Amazon Prime. Best of all, you don’t need a Prime account to watch; if you have a free Amazon account, you can see it for free for a limited time.
REASONS TO SEE: Some interesting material – and heartbreaking moments. A different side of the Johnny Cash story.
REASONS TO AVOID: The soundtrack is almost dirge-like
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Liberto met Cash at a roller skating rink in San Antonio while Cash was in the Air Force and based at nearby Brooks Air Base.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: 80/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Walk the Line
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: South Mountain