“Ring of Fire,” a Lifetime movie premiering Monday, May 27, packs two wonderful surprises: The film is June Carter Cash’s story, not Johnny Cash’s, and Jewel, the singer, is terrific as her.
“People know me as a musician,” Jewel tells Zap2it during a break from touring. “I was really worried I had to lose myself in the role, and I had to be able to transform.”
Jewel plays the singer from ages 22 to 72, portraying her as a young woman whose first time solo onstage could have been her last. June Carter’s pick for her autoharp went flying, and some in the audience started to snicker. But she made a joke and won over the audience with an easy sassiness.
The first time she met Johnny Cash (Matt Ross, “Big Love,” “Magic City”) he was smitten.
Two years later, he greeted her as he did everyone: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”
“I know that,” she says.
“Want to know something else?” Cash says. “I’m going to marry you someday.”
“Well, I just can’t wait,” she retorts.
It took a little time until she freed herself from a lousy marriage, but once Cash and she were together, that was it. Theirs was a great love story.
If you think know this story all too well, because of Reese Witherspoon’s Oscar-winning turn as June Carter Cash in “Walk the Line,” remember that film was from Johnny Cash’s perspective.
“I didn’t watch it again,” Jewel says of the 2005 film. “It wasn’t necessarily some big conscious effort. I had my hands full of taking the role on, and this is the story of her life – not just the story of the woman behind the man.”
That was precisely the reason for making this film, says director Allison Anders (“Southland,” “Grace of My Heart”).
“It was not just that June Carter had a husband,” Anders says. “She had a husband who was an icon.”
As expected, Jewel gets the singing down despite their different styles. June was more of an alto, and Jewel is more of a soprano.
“I was able to listen to a lot of her tapes and songs, and I was able to listen to exact sounds,” Jewel says. “She was famous for a little growl she would do.”
Jewel’s successful transformation goes beyond wigs, makeup and costumes. She captures the different movements and mannerisms of a woman in her 20s and one in her 70s.
“I was lucky enough to take on a character and was able to upload footage on her from her 20s on,” Jewel says. “I was able to watch her posture; she had this very proud posture. It was a point of pride for her to have head up, chest out. She had amazingly youthful posture.”
The film, shot during a month in Georgia, begins with June Carter at age 6, when she was singing with her folks as the Carter Family. Frances Conroy (“Six Feet Under”) turns in a lovely, wistful performance as June’s mother.
The performances are not intended to be mirrors of the people, which would be extremely difficult if not impossible, considering how famous they were.
“I tried not to obsess him about him,” Ross says of Johnny. “It is out of my control. I was playing him. I tried to do justice to the man. The more I read about him, I found I really admired him. He was a very caring man and struggled mightily with addiction to amphetamines and barbiturates.”
Johnny Cash’s weight would swing wildly depending whether he was abusing pills. Ross says he would have loved to have had the time to get emaciated, then bulk up, but the four-week production shoot did not allow for that.
“For me I was trying to interpret a man who was a deeply caring and sensitive person and who deeply needed his wife,” Ross says. “It was quite a love story.”
Anders was the precisely right person to make this film because she had already done a tremendous amount of research on the Carter-Cash family. She was set to direct a different TV movie about them before “Walk the Line” was released. That TV movie was shelved, and about eight years later, this opportunity came along.
What Anders hopes people take is the realization that June Carter Cash wrote “Ring of Fire,” though she is listed as a co-writer. Most people assume Johnny wrote it because it was such an enormous hit for him. The inspiration was from a book of poetry an uncle had given to June.
“I wanted them to see June was her own woman, a powerful, loyal, committed person to her music, to her family and to herself,” Anders says. “Ultimately, I think it is a beautiful woman’s journey, but she eventually comes to a real understanding of herself through her love of music and her family and children and through her crisis, too, with all of those things.”