- It burns, burns, burns … Matt Ross and Jewel in Ring of Fire
“Move over Reese Witherspoon,” said Us Weekly when it was announced that Alaskan singer-songwriter-poet Jewel would star as June Carter Cash in the Lifetime original movie Ring of Fire. You might recall that Witherspoon won an Oscar for her portrayal of Carter Cash in the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. One time Jewel played Jewel on The Young and the Restless. Lifetime used the Us Weekly quote in just about every commercial leading up to Ring of Fire‘s December 6 premiere, but as we all know Reese Witherspoon is not moving anywhere (‘cept to a new mansion, maybe) and even intimating that Jewel’s performance would outdo Witherspoon’s is foolish and cruel. It’s like printing, “Move over, Meryl Streep! Meredith Baxter is gonna knock your socks off as Margaret Thatcher in the Lifetime original Pearls Before Swine: The Margaret Thatcher Story.” (I’m working on this script as we speak.)
Was Jewel bad in Ring of Fire? Nope. She was cute and decently capable as the charismatic country music legend—except for a pair of horrifying blue contact lenses that made her look like a White Walker from Game of Thrones. She can sing, of course, and, boy, is there a lot of singing, despite the fact that Matt Ross, who costars as Cash, is himself not much of a singer. Or any of a singer. The movie unintentionally captures the monotony of a performer’s life by jumping from gig to gig, mostly so we can watch Johnny’s descent into drug addiction and June’s talent for drawing him out and drying him up. Sometimes it’s unclear whether Lifetime set out to make a movie about June Carter or whether they wanted to make another movie about Johnny Cash, but from a woman’s perspective. In either case, they didn’t really succeed.
Little Junie Carter grew up a precocious star in a Tennessee showbiz family. From a young age she was made to set aside kid stuff in order to follow her mother’s and uncle’s orders and do things like answer each of the hundred fan letters she’d received, even though it’s creepy for an eight-year-old to get fan letters. During a talent show performance in her teens, June drops the pick to her autoharp and has to improvise and charm the crowd, and the experience helps a reluctant June discover that performing is her calling. When she’s older June marries a rat. Then marries a race car driver. Then marries a drug addict.
By the movie’s first commercial break, June is grown, married, and has a child, which is to say that not a whole lot of love is given to her formative years. The choppy narrative rushes us forward as quickly as possible to June’s years-long flirtation and, eventually, love affair with Cash, slowing only for key events, most of which involve the men in her orbit. We watch Carter as she sits with her guitar and writes one of Cash’s biggest hits (they didn’t call it Ring of Fire just because Walk the Line was already taken).
Whether it was time constraints or crappy writing, Ring of Fire feels feels entirely superficial. As the film jumps from Kansas City in 1962 to “four years later” to “two years later” than that, you figure interesting things have to be happening while we hurry on our way to Johnny’s stint in rehab and requisite recovery montage. Keep in mind: June was famous well before her husband, and successful on her own. This comes off as a movie way more about her role as a partner than her independent spirit.