The life story of Johnny Cash’s long-suffering, steel magnolia wife June Carter takes the spotlight in Monday night’s Lifetime original movie, Ring of Fire.
Culled from a biography written by the couple’s son John Carter Cash and named for the iconic song Carter penned to exorcise her feelings for the singer when both were married to other people, the film chronicles June’s rise to fame with country music’s legendary The Carter Family and her passion for “The Man In Black” that simmered through her first two marriages until they wed in 1968.
Grammy-winning singer Jewel plays June with reverence and charm, taking her from a strong-willed young woman who realized her ability to stand out from her famous family as both a comic and musical talent to a devoted wife and mother who clearly understood that her intense bond with her husband (gamely played by Big Love’s Matt Ross) couldn’t be broken even by decades of drug use that threatened to destroy Cash’s life and career.
“It was a challenge to prepare for this role,” Jewel explained in a Q&A with the network. “I not only studied how to sing like her, but how she moved on stage and how she spoke. I tried not to focus on our similarities, because those things came quite naturally to me. Her relationship with Johnny was turbulent and there were real issues of co-dependency and substance abuse. Learning about their relationship and understanding her struggles was key to my understanding and portraying her. I read books, studied videos, and also spoke with friends of hers, like Jessie Colter, to try and get a full since of her as a person.”
Fans of both The Carter Family’s and Cash’s music are amply rewarded throughout the film, and even the most devout enthusiasts might be learn a thing or two about the couple — such as their refusal to bow to network pressure to not book Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie (“Communist sympathizers”} or Bob Dylan (“a peacenik”) on their 1969-1971 variety hour, The Johnny Cash Show. Or Johnny’s part in helping June shed her ditzy, downhome, second-banana image and showcase her individual musical talent (“I think we just killed off ‘Little Junie Carter,’” he says.)
June’s devotion to hers and Cash’s children is well documented, too. A scene in which she attempts to give a very young John Carter his first “switchin’” after he tells a fib about snitching some of Grandma Maybelle’s pie steals the entire film.
But the most powerful scenes entail June’s simultaneous attempts to break her husband’s drug dependency and shield herself and the kids from the effects of Johnny’s downward spiral — and her anguish and confusion when her trademark loving nature and sense of humor fail to bring him back.
When Johnny finally agrees to a stint in the Betty Ford Center following a hospital-bed intervention by his wife and children, June is wounded to catch him laughing with fellow patients after weeks of separation.
“I nursed him back from the grave,” she cries to the family’s counselor. “I hate him. I hate him. And that is just the truth of it. … I’m the one who has to stay strong and protect the kids and hold it all together. I want to ask God: What about me? I need help.”
“My favorite scene, which was also the most challenging scene, was the moment where June breaks down and realizes she can’t carry the weight of Johnny’s addiction on her shoulders anymore,” Jewel explained of the climatic scene. “There isn’t a big car chase or some epic battle at the end of the film to bring it to a climax. It was this scene — emotional, raw, honest and real. As an actress, I knew this would be the moment on which the film hinged on, and so I just went for it as best I could!”
June succumbed to heart disease on May 15, 2003 and her grief-stricken husband died just four months later.
Ring of Fire also stars Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under) as Maybelle Carter, singer/actor John Doe (X) as June’s uncle, A.P. Carter, founding member of The Carter Family, and The Peasall Sisters (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) as The Carter Sisters.
Ring of Fire premieres Monday, May 27, at 9 pm ET/PT on Lifetime.
Photo credits: Annette Brown