Jewel hits the right notes as June Carter Cash, but dutiful biopic doesn't quite carry a tune
For those who didn’t find “Walk the Line” a sufficient exploration of the Johnny Cash-June Carter made-in-country-heaven romance, Lifetime putties in the gaps with “Ring of Fire,” a handsome-looking TV movie that hits the relationship’s high notes without really carrying a tune. Jewel stars (and does her own singing, admirably) as June, but the source material — a biography written by the country star’s son, John Carter Cash — constrains the movie’s focus largely to mom telling drug-abusing dad, “I won’t watch you die.” Nevertheless, sibling History scored with “Hatfields & McCoys” over Memorial Day 2012, and “Fire” should ignite its own lesser spark.
Directed by Allison Anders and adapted by Richard Friedenberg, “Ring of Fire” opens with June’s childhood stardom as part of a singing family led by her uncle (X’s John Doe) and mom (Frances Conroy). She’s already moved on to a solo career and survived a marriage to a cheatin’ singer by the time she gets hired to tour with Cash (“Big Love’s” Matt Ross), whose obvious chemistry with her is offset by the fact he’s a “dope fiend,” as she later describes him.
There is, naturally, a lot of music, including the title song that Carter Cash wrote to commemorate her tumultuous relationship with the man in black. Still, the story essentially just careens from one bout of Johnny falling off the wagon to the next, until a stint in the Betty Ford Center finally compels (or enables) the saintly June to come to grips with her own anger about his lapses.
Jewel and Ross are convincing as the central couple, playing them over an extended span. A particularly good scene has her trying to cover for him as he drunkenly flubs his way through a duet.
Admittedly, women standing by flawed men are a Lifetime-movie staple, and playing to the country/Southern audience has proved to be a successful strategy for cable, birthing its own programming subgenre (mostly in a reality vein).
Still, the structure of the movie compels the two to operate without much in the way of backup singers, and the story casts June as such a noble, one-dimensional spirit, it doesn’t so much end as simply run out the clock.
That said, some will no doubt be satisfied just to soak in the atmosphere and the music, and besides, it’s been eight years since “Walk the Line.” And as Cash song titles tailored to romance-oriented biopics go, at least this one beats “Folsom Prison Blues” or “A Boy Named Sue.”