Ring Of Fire debuts tonight on Lifetime at 9 p.m. Eastern.
Ring Of Fire compresses some sixty years in the life of June Carter Cash into roughly an hour and a half of screen time, not counting commercials. It’s the kind of film where the birth of June and Johnny Cash’s son is followed by a brief scene, set three years later, that serves no purpose except to show that June was too soft-hearted to spank the kid, which is immediately followed by a scene set four years later. In this kind of flash-card biopic, casting counts for a lot. The 2005 feature film Walk The Line, which covered much of the same ground, was clumsy and awkward and flat-out embarrassing in places; it even featured a scene, meant to show how June’s tortured attraction to her future husband inspired her to write the song “Ring Of Fire,” in which Reese Witherspoon sat in a car, rocking and grimacing and moaning, “It burns! It burns!!” But in the end, what mattered was that it was a chance to watch Joaquin Phoenix play Johnny Cash. Ring Of Fire is a chance to see Jewel being addressed as June Carter Cash and not correcting anyone.
Jewel hasn’t done much acting, but she’s not a novice, and she’s not horrible. She’s poised and polite and makes the appropriate facial expressions from scene to scene, whether she’s beaming with delight in anticipation of going onstage or making a face like someone who’s just seen Godzilla flatten her loved ones to indicate how she feels about the discovery that her first husband is a no-good cheater. But any virtues to having Jewel in this role are strictly negative. Ring Of Fire tells the story that’s familiar to June’s fans: The story of a little country girl who grew up as part of a legendary performing unit, singing with her sisters as part of the Carter Family, and who, as she grew our of her childhood adorability, compensated for her lack of glamor and perceived deficiencies as a singer by tapping into the sassy, goofy side of her personality and blossoming as a comedian.
By contrast, Jewel’s singing is smooth and proficient, and her overnight success when she was 20 probably had a lot to do with the pictures on her CD covers, and the way she used to squeeze the lyrics out of her mouth through a “Gimme a little kiss, will ya, huh?” pucker in her videos. But she doesn’t have a colorful personality, and she doesn’t seem to have a funny bone in her body. In a scene backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, she rehearses the routine she’s going to do on stage, trying out variations on the phrase “big ol’ Cadillac car” like a good, hard-working student, and giggling at her own delivery, as if trying to assure the viewers at home that this is really quite humorous. As an actress, she’s a bricklayer, and given the way this film races through the stages of its heroine’s life, she’d need a real quicksilver talent to suggest any degree of character development. Some 15 years pass since that night at the Opry, and June has to listen to one of the vulgar fat cats bankrolling her husband’s TV show talk about the kind of commercial “balance” the network wants: “Dylan’s flower power and June’s cornpone.” She chews that over, then interrupts the rehearsal for a comedy bit she’s supposed to do on the show by announcing, “I don’t want to be funny!” Johnny proudly declares, “I think we just killed off little Junie Carter!” If this is supposed to indicate that June then followed her husband’s lead and became a more “serious” artist who sought to make a statement about social issues, the film doesn’t have time to explore what that might have entailed. It has to get Johnny back into rehab and June into tense, searching conservations with counselors.
Walk The Line was about Johnny Cash and the woman he loved; Ring Of Fire turns into a film about a woman who, there but for the grace of God, loved Johnny Cash. That might have been inevitable, but casting Matt Ross as the Man in Black counts as anything but. Maybe the most charitable thing that can be said is that he’s the wrong kind of crazy. As he’s demonstrated in Big Love, Magic City, and the first season of American Horror Story, Ross’ talent is for projecting the beady-eyed madness of small-time authority figures and control freaks, with dark secrets and Napoleon complexes; this role calls for a lot more Randall Patrick McMurphy, a bit less Nurse Ratched. When he and June start performing together, they exultantly sing “Wabash Cannonball.” Many years pass, and we get the first sign of trouble when they hit the stage together and he powers through the song in an intense, out-of-control fast tempo while she struggles to keep up, smiling nervously at the audience to assure them that everything’s all right. The chemistry is less troubled artist and nurturing muse than Charles Manson and Carol Brady. (The film doesn’t consider the possibility there might be only so many times most people could sing “Wabash Cannonball” before they’d naturally start preparing for a show with a beer and whatever pills the roadies could spare.)
In some of her indie features from the ‘80s and ‘90s, director Allison Anders (Border Radio, Mi Vida Loca) showed a special knack for sucking all the life out of her low-rent Los Angeles milieu; here, she shows she can also suck the life out of a milieu for which she has a lot less feeling. The only parts of Ring Of Fire that have any resonance are the early scenes about the Carter Family, and that’s because, working with next to nothing, Frances Conroy, as June’s mother Maybelle and John Doe, as her uncle A. D. Carter, manage to suggest ties to what the music critic Greil Marcus calls “the old, weird America.” (Doe, in particular, injects a little vinegar into this sweet story; whether onstage or off, he looks less like a member of a family music group featuring three singing moppets than a cult leader who’s just received word that his ATF agents have the compound surrounded.)
The challenge to an actress playing June Carter Cash is to account for how a fun-loving goofball became a revered, madonna-like figure who made a working marriage with a man who was, to steal a line from the Ron Shelton movie Tin Cup, chock full of inner demons. Jewel is too sacramental even when she’s meant to a goofball, and the film has neither the time nor the Johnny Cash it would need to even get into the second part of that equation. In a scene that makes Walk The Line look like a landmark in subtlety and suggestiveness, June takes exception to the “wrinkled mess” of a shirt Johnny has on and tells him, “Take it off. I’m gonna iron some respectability into that thing,” and all Ring Of Fire has on it mind is ironing respectability into a figure whose image already has more respectability in it than she needs.