Ring of Fire (2013) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Ring of Fire (2013)

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PristineAndrew INDIFFERENCE BannerIn yet another sign of an incredibly slow week, here comes another made-for-TV movie that looks better than any of its DVD kin.  We're jumping from the National Geographic Channel to Lifetime and trading a President I respect more than love to a musical legend I love more than respect.  Unfortunately, the legend in question is not the ostensible focus of this film, Ring of Fire.  Because for all the subtitle would have you believe this movie is not at all about the life of June Carter Cash.

Here's the most straightforward approach to the film.  If you know nothing about the lives of June Carter or Johnny Cash, the music that they produced, the hardships they plowed through, or the raw strength of their faith than this film will suit you just fine on a bored Sunday.  None of the performances are bad, pass into the realm of ok at times, and you'll hear a number of excellent songs that are performed with great emotion if not exactly skill.

That's about as positive as I can get about this film, but the rest of it doesn't deserve much scorn.  Ring of Fire advertises itself as the story of June Carter Cash as "It's time for her side of the story."  That would be great if we ended up getting her side of the story at all.  Instead it seems just as slavishly devoted to the men in her life as any other fictionalized account of the Carter / Cash legacy.

The first third of the film is filled with a lot of great music and little complication.

The first third of the film is filled with a lot of great music and little complication.

We see young June Carter (Mary Steward Sullivan) as she travels around with her family performing their steadily popular gospel country hits.  Her parents (Frances Conroy and Andy Stahl) dutifully tour their neighboring towns while making the time to appear at a radio station twice a day for years of their lives.  I wasn't enthralled by these opening passages but I was interested.  The only film I can think off the cuff that deals with a professional entertainment family dealing with the rigors of the road is Selena (home of the best over-emotional saxophone work ever recorded).  I liked that the film took the time to, even in small shots, show just how stressful the life is on them.

But, years pass in montage, and June Carter has become a glowing young woman with the stress of those early years barely affecting what is seen onscreen.  See, Ring of Fire has the worst tendencies of the most mediocre biopics to gloss over the intimate details of the lives of its participants to make sure it hits every key moment.  So most of the events that occur in the film are important only so long as they are onscreen and rarely ever have an effect afterward.  This is most hilariously realized in a scene the creators probably did not intend as funny when elder mama Carter is called on by her daughter to sing one last time and then promptly dies some time later in the next cut.

I know the death of mama Carter affected June deeply but you won't be able to pick that up from the film.  From mama's death, to June's divorce, meeting Johnny Cash, starting a family, and any other milestone in the film there is no resonance carried between scenes.  It's to the performers credit that there is at least some sense of emotion portrayed but it has nothing to do with the structure, which feels inclined to rip June from one low point in her life to the next.  If the music weren't so chipper this would almost qualify for misery porn.

The chemistry between this version of June and Johnny was lacking, and it's never more apparent than in the music scenes.

The chemistry between this version of June and Johnny was lacking, and it's never more apparent than in the music scenes.

That may seem a bit hyperbolic considering that Jewel Kilcher is in the cast as the elder June and, aside from her music video for Hands, hasn't really traipsed in unnecessary emotional pain too much.  But the sequence of events of her life is edited together for pain instead of joy.  It goes back to her divorce, then Johnny's pill addiction, mama's death, her son's disillusionment with his father, more pain.  This might seem more transcendent if the film showed a soul rising above it all but June is a witness to the way everyone collapses around her instead of having a hand, either helping or hurting, in the events.

The biggest failing of the film is that there were many times I wanted to stop the movie and listen to the albums, or revisit James Mangold's Walk the Line, instead of continuing on with the movie.  This isn't out of pain or apathy, two of the biggest reasons I usually want to stop doing something.  But Ring of Fire doesn't even have the strength of its own premise.  It completely fails to tell the story of June Carter by placing her in the context of what her dad asked of the family for the first part of her life then what Johnny Cash (Matt Ross, better suited for Kurt Cobain than Cash) asked of her in the second.  The film rendition of "I'll Fly Away" made me want to listen to the Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch's version, and any song performed by Carter or Cash longed for the better pretenders.

If I can't at least have inspiring music what else can I have?  The heroin-thin version of Johnny Cash isn't enough.  I want music, even if the story comes second.

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Ring of Fire - TailRing of Fire (2013)

Directed by Allison Anders.
Screenplay written by Richard Friedenberg.
Starring Jewel Kilcher and Matt Ross.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. Good review. I haven’t watched the movie & don’t know if I will. We are such big CASH fans in our family but just seeing the previews makes me feel that the actors they chose to play Johnny and June aren’t right for those rolls. And after reading your review maybe I’ll just despatch Walk the Line. Cheers

    • Thanks for the comment Brenda! Getting Walk the Line out is probably going to be a better choice. Ring of Fire isn’t bad but you’re absolutely correct that the roles are not cast well.

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