They say that the telling of history depends on who is doing the writing. Well, that goes for personal stories as well. Most casual Johnny Cash fans wouldn’t even know that June Carter was his second wife. That he was married and had four daughters with Vivian Liberto first. Because of the way that the Johnny and June love story was sort of built up by those around them, it did not leave any room for Vivian. That is too bad because she played an important role in his early life and had an interesting story of her own to tell.
Director Matt Riddlehoover is actually related to Vivian Liberto by marriage. His husband, and a producer on the film, is the grandson of Vivian and Johnny Cash. He had heard stories of her and decided it was high time her side of the story came out. Her four daughters, Roseanne, Cindy, Tara, and Kathy, were happy that someone finally wanted to let people know who Vivian was. They make up the bulk of the film with the interviews with all four adding plenty of detail and emotion to the story.
When she was only 17 years old, San Antonio resident Vivian LIberto met a young Air Force cadet in the summer of 1951. His name was Johnny Cash and they met at a roller skating rink. After spending all their time together for a few weeks he had to leave to go off to Germany where he was to be stationed.
The distance did not reduce their feelings for each other. A three year separation led to thousands of letters going back and forth between them. When Johnny returned in 1954 they were married. Within a year of them getting married things had changed for Vivian and Johnny.
First settling in Memphis, Johnny worked as a door to door salesman. He wasn’t very good at it. Most of his time and effort was spent on trying to get his music career going. The two newlyweds were quite poor without much money to buy even groceries with. They had also begun a family and in short order Vivian had given birth to four girls.
Quickly though, Johnny’s music career took off. By 1961 he was a sensation selling plenty of records and always touring. Within two weeks of having given birth to their youngest daughter Tara, Vivian was setting up in a custom built house in Casistas Springs, California.
Their time there (7 years) was not a happy period. Johnny was never home. She was targeted by hate groups who thought mistakenly that the Italian Catholic was African American. And fans would show up at the door at all times wanting to see Johnny. Things got worse for Vivian when she realized that Johnny was now with June Carter. She fell victim to isolation, fear and heartbreak.
Vivian thought she could call Johnny’s bluff by filing for divorce in 1967, but she was fooled when he allowed it to go through. Now the one man she loved was marrying another woman. Another woman who would go on to claim that she was raising the four girls when that wasn’t true. Also, due to the divorce Vivian, a fervent Catholic, was excommunicated for a time until Johnny wrote claiming all responsibility for the divorce
What comes through in the documentary is how much Vivian loved Johnny right up until his death in 2003 and how untrue the stories were about her. Because she was an intensely private woman she never went to the press with her side of things.
A doc like this really makes you realize that you are definitely not getting the truth when you only see one side of the story. That is doubly so when Hollywood steps in to tell the tale as they are just looking for something which will bring people into the theatres. Bottom line for them is money and telling a story which will sell and not what actually happened. In Walk the Line, Vivian is made to look bitter and petty. Also totally seems to have forgotten that she was the inspiration for the song, “I Walk the Line”.
Riddlehoover tries to bring as clear a picture of the woman as possible. Almost all the speaking here is done by her four daughters as they sat down for interviews for the film. The visuals are through photos and video from the era.
It is a nuanced picture we get of Vivian. Her daughters do not sugar coat it. They acknowledge how hard their time was in California. How their mother was fearful, unstable and not easy to be around during those years. Roseanne talks of how exacting her mother was and critical of her when she turned to a career in music like her father. Vivian would often make comments of her daughter’s hair or how she was during interviews. Definitely not an “easy” woman, though much of that is chalked up to Johnny’s abandonment and Vivian having to raise four daughters on her own.
Such a private woman. Seemed content in the background, though she was a social creature at parties and family gatherings. We don’t even hear Vivian’s voice until the last minutes of the film. She died rather young in 2005 tragically due to a medical error during surgery, so is not around to tell her own story.