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Ring of Fire

Director: Allison Anders
Cast: Jewel Kilcher, Matt Ross, Frances Conroy, John Doe, Mary Stewart Sullivan, Erin Beute

(First Run Features; US theatrical: 27 May 2013; 2013)

All the Pieces of Your Life

Ring of Fire seems designed as a companion piece to the Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line. While the 2005 film was based on Cash’s autobiographies, the Lifetime movie is based on their son John Carter Cash’s book about his mother, Anchored in Love: An Intimate Portrait of June Carter Cash. Focused on June’s legendary strength in the face of the pressures of fame and Johnny’s drug addiction, it neglects her own emotional life, her own hopes, dreams, and motivations. In making Johnny’s drug abuse the main story of their life together, it leaves June to react to his actions, his troubles, and his needs.


In order to get us to that story, Ring of Fire considers how June (played here by Jewel) might have come to be Johnny’s (Matt Ross) life partner. And so it offers at least a glimpse into the opportunities and costs she encountered, as she transitioned from her place in the Carter Family (known as the First Family of Country Music) to being married to Johnny. The revelations here mostly involve the costs. Johnny Cash famously said that God and June Carter saved him from drugs in 1968 (when she helped him detox after a suicide attempt). As many autobiographies and biographies record, Cash relapsed repeatedly after this date, and this film tracks one of June’s many efforts to save him, again and again, this time in 1983, when she staged an intervention and convinced Johnny to go to the Betty Ford Center.


Ring of Fire implies that Johnny finally was saved from drugs at that time, but in fact, it wasn’t his last stint in rehab and his drug abuse continued. More frustrating is the film’s lack of attention to the biggest revelation in John Carter Cash’s book, namely, that after years of trying to help Johnny with his drug addiction, June herself succumbed to drug addiction in her later years. Anchored in Love tells the story of how drugs overwhelmed the whole family, including the children by the time they reached their adolescence, but the film doesn’t even mention these harrowing developments.


Instead, it offers largely pedestrian observations of the difficulties of celebrity. The movie’s first section shows how being a living legend can be exciting and yet, at the same time, draining. We see June emerging as “little Junie” (played by Mary Stuart Sullivan), performing with her two sisters as well as the original Carter Family, comprised of their mother Maybelle (Frances Conroy), Maybelle’s cousin Sara Carter (Michelle Kabashinski), and Sara’s husband, A.P. Carter (John Doe).These early scenes underscore the patriarch A.P.‘s ambition, as well as June’s use of corn-pone comedy routines to cover up her sometimes rough singing, compared to her sisters’ more polished voices.


The film hints at June’s struggle to find an individual identity, but too many scenes during her childhood and teenage years deliver trite morals. In one, June complains about having to respond to hundreds of fan letters. Maybelle responds to this teachable moment, telling June she must always appreciate the fans who allow her fame and privilege, and then June’s older sister delivers the pat message when she literally says that answering letters is “the price of fame and glory.” Even if her sister is also expressing some sarcastic sibling rivalry in that moment, the film leaves unexplored potentially resonant questions about how a child might understand such responsibility, or might feel uneasy with the obligations of stardom.


The second part of the film, when June meets Johnny while both are married to other people, also glosses over emotional complications in favor of an episodic structure. Montages of music tours and brief scenes barely illustrate their evolving relationship, with Jewel playing June as a good-natured, girlish flirt who jokes her way through personal struggles. Repeatedly, Jewel’s weak performance here is distracting; perhaps worse, her singing voice doesn’t resemble June’s. Her portrayal improves in the much stronger third section of the film, which examines her attempts to get Cash off of drugs; Jewel plays anger better than youthful charm, and their fights about his drug use provide dramatic heft.


Still, the film might best be described as a series of missed opportunities, gesturing toward but not exploring her family’s wholly rational concerns: when June has a child with Johnny, Maybelle asserts, unconvincingly, “You’re going to be all right now… All the pieces of your life, they all fit now.” Later, after her parents have died, June reveals that Johnny’s drug abuse feels like another abandonment, and she resents always having to “be strong.” Again, the film drops this insight and moves on, as if it’s just too hard to get into.


Ring of Fire is more successful in showing the significance of music in both the Carters’ and the Cashes’ lives. In one scene, when June’s first husband Carl Smith (Linds Edwards) has left her to raise her infant daughter alone, Maybelle asks whether A.P. can’t find some wisdom for her among the more than 300 folk songs he’s collected. He sings “Diamonds in the Rough,” as everyone joins in, the scene emphasizing the chorus, “So let us all press on” (a lesson invoked in one of June’s Grammy-winning albums, titled Press On and featuring that song). The film repeatedly showcases song performances, a more effective means of storytelling than the unimaginative dialogue.


The movie closes with poignant scenes of June recording her final album in 2002. She returns to Clinch Mountain, Virginia, to record in her family home, surrounded by generations of family and friends, looking ill but finding comfort in the music. While the film here closely mirrors scenes that were shot for her Wildwood Flower CD, it makes effective use of their group sing of “Far Side Banks of Jordan,” which extends over images of her funeral.


In following the son’s book, Ring of Fire recounts conversations between his parents as he overhears them, his delight in his loving father when the latter is sober and his upset when Johnny is doped up and raging. It also makes very clear John Carter Cash’s (Austin M. Stack) abiding appreciation for June’s determined wit and will.

Rating:

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For all of its faults, this album speaks to the variety of Cash's immense body of work in a way that the much-celebrated Rick Rubin recordings simply do not.
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