The enduring and oft-tortured romance and marriage of Johnny Cash and the Carter Family’s June Carter Cash continues to provide compelling cinematic subject matter. The latest incarnation of the country music saga reaches the small screen May 27, when Lifetime airs director Allison Anders’ new take on the story, “Ring of Fire.” The pic had its premiere screening Tuesday night as part of the Grammy Museum’s “Reel to Reel” film series.
The telepic covers some of the same ground as James Mangold’s 2005 biopic “Walk the Line.” Matt Ross (“American Horror Story”) essays Johnny Cash this time around, but – it being a Lifetime production – the film focuses on June Carter Cash and her long-running struggle to keep her pill-addicted partner straight. Taking her first major screen role since Ang Lee’s 1999 feature “Ride With the Devil,” pop/country singer Jewel portrays Carter Cash from the ages of 22 to 72.
Introducing the screening with a solo acoustic rendition of “Ring of Fire” (which Carter Cash co-authored), the engagingly self-deprecating vocalist thanked the cable web “for letting a folksinger pretend she’s an actress for a while.”
During a post-screening panel moderated by the Grammy Foundation’s Scott Goldman, the singer-actress said that her first reaction upon getting the role was, “Oh, crap.” She confessed that potential comparisons of her work to Reese Witherspoon’s Oscar-winning performance as Carter Cash in “Walk the Line” fostered some trepidation on her part, but, she added, “Like a moth to the flame, I went. I was drawn by how dangerous it was.”
The Cashes’ son John Carter Cash – whose book “Anchored in Love” supplied the film’s source material – praised the relatively untested actress’ work: “I’m proud of the work that Jewel did, and the job she did capturing my mother’s spirit.”
Anders, who has employed musician-actors in such features as “Border Radio,” “Grace of My Heart” and “Sugar Town,” stocked “Ring of Fire” with such performers as John Doe of X and the Knitters (playing Carter Family patriarch A.P. Carter) and the Peasall Sisters (as the teenaged Carter Sisters).
“There’s a persona that musicians carry with them,” Anders said. “I like to find what’s under the persona.”
Jewel noted that playing a musician in front of a camera is more difficult than simply being one: “It was hardest for me to stay in character when I was singing. I even had a hard time clapping in time.”