There are many problems with Lifetime’s decision to make its latest original movie, “Ring of Fire,” which is about the life of country singer June Carter Cash.
First and foremost, the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line” is still fairly recent — 2005 wasn’t that long ago. It’s fresh enough in people’s minds that anyone portraying Cash’s famous second wife (as singer-songwriter Jewel does here) is going to be compared with Reese Witherspoon, who won an Oscar for her portrayal.
Still, for all of the TV movie’s shortcomings — which include middling acting and clunky dialogue — Lifetime’s effort achieves something unique: telling the well-known story of Johnny Cash’s career from a female perspective.
The approach makes sense given that the film is based on the 2007 book by the couple’s son, John Carter Cash, “Anchored in Love: An Intimate Portrait of June Carter Cash.” The movie briefly delves into June’s early life in Virginia as a girl pulled semi-reluctantly into the Carter Family performance business and who discovers that music is truly her calling. But the script turns quickly to Johnny’s territory and stays there.
The movie makes a genuine effort to see Johnny entirely through June’s eyes: how his musical brilliance, along with his self-destructive behavior and substance abuse, affected every aspect of her life as a wife and mother. Tellingly, Johnny isn’t even seen performing his hit “Ring of Fire” — which was written by June — until the movie’s final moments. Instead, we see June’s process of creating the song. And during an emotional scene when she takes their son to visit his father in rehab, we hear her voice singing it in the background.
“You wrote ‘Ring of Fire’ for me,” Johnny says to June during one of the happier times in their marriage.
“I didn’t write it for you,” she answers. “I wrote it about you.”
This unusual view of one of country music’s most famous couples is refreshing, but the two-hour movie struggles in other aspects. To get through all of June’s life (the movie covers more than 60 years, from 1939 to her death in 2003), the brief scenes seem slapped together haphazardly. Even the gravity that Frances Conroy brings to the role of June’s mother, singer Maybelle Carter, isn’t quite enough to make up for others’ mediocre performances.
Jewel gives a perfectly adequate performance — her voice works very well on songs such as “Wabash Cannonball” and “I’ll Fly Away.” But it’s hard to take seriously as the Man in Black the actor who plays her husband, Matt Ross of “American Horror Story.”
Except for the chance to hear a few country classics, the movie doesn’t offer much else. And Lifetime missed an opportunity to show the film a couple of weeks earlier on Mother’s Day, which would have been the perfect time to highlight an aspect of June Carter Cash that tends to be overlooked in the story of her life.
(two hours) premieres Monday
at 9 p.m. on Lifetime.