At the end of a new movie about June Carter Cash, she and her husband, Johnny, sit and sing The Far Side Banks of Jordan. They had recorded the song more than once, but this is a late-in-life duet; the lyrics about a loving couple preparing to meet in the afterlife echo far more strongly in their aged voices.
As they sing a line about reaching for each other, Johnny reaches out to take June’s hand. Each had been married before. They had endured tough times, especially as Johnny battled his demons. But they had come through it, they were close — and that little moment of hand-holding gets to me.
It also underscores the appeal of musician biographies, two of which air in the days ahead. Besides the Cash film Ring of Fire, which premieres at 9 p.m. Monday on Lifetime, there is the much-discussed Behind the Candelabra, about the pianist and showman Liberace, which makes its debut at 9 p.m. Sunday on HBO. To be sure, these are very different lives in music. But the films show how well one can use the performance art as a counterpoint to personal travails — and that even people on the biggest stage have to figure out the meaning of love and relationships.
Candelabra has a pretty serious set of credentials, with Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh as the director and Michael Douglas playing Liberace opposite Matt Damon as Scott Thorson, Liberace’s lover for five years. But do not underestimate Ring of Fire, which stars Jewel as June and Big Love’s Matt Ross as Johnny; while I wish there was more of the movie, especially in the somewhat sketchy early going, its director is Allison Anders, who has made such impressive films as Grace of My Heart and Things Behind the Sun.
The title of Candelabra comes from Thorson’s 1988 tell-all book detailing his time with Liberace, which began in 1977 when Thorson was 18 and Liberace 57. Thorson is brought into Liberace’s world, and into his bed, and is for the most part comfortable in both places. He certainly accepts all the bling, and goes along with Liberace’s remaking of the younger man, through not only a new wardrobe but plastic surgery and a drug-laced diet plan that led to later problems for Thorson. But this was a complicated emotional relationship, as the movie deftly shows, with Liberace at times a sexual partner for Thorson (and a kinky one at that) and other times wanting to be a father figure for Thorson, even adopting him.
The film continues into Thorson’s growing drug problem, Liberace’s eventually dumping him, Thorson suing for palimony and, five years after their breakup, Liberace’s 1987 death from AIDS; it ends with the funeral Thorson imagined Liberace would have wanted, a far more elaborate affair than he actually got. Judging from the afterword in the reissued edition of Thorson’s Behind the Candelabra book, there’s another, often sordid movie in those years — but they were ones without Liberace, who is the most fascinating figure in the HBO film.
And Douglas plays him remarkably well, comfortable in the crazy clothes and locations (drawn from the real things), warm and engaging at some points and cold-blooded in others, signaling emotional shifts with the slightest changes in his speaking tone. He is also well matched by Damon (who really does look baby-faced here), and they have a fine supporting cast including Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s domineering mother and Rob Lowe as a terrifyingly funny plastic surgeon. While they all go about their sometimes tormented business, the soundtrack — adapted by the late Marvin Hamlisch — offers in contrast soothing, Liberace-like piano music.
As is common in Soderbergh’s work, melodrama is kept at bay, and the world of Liberace is presented as one that is perfectly normal to its inhabitants — no matter how odd it looked to the outside world. (Also a common Soderbergh touch, and one I am tired of, is the yellowish lighting of some scenes as if they were shot under bad fluorescents.) And, at the end, we are looking at two men who really wanted love — and had very little idea of what that meant.
Ring of Fire, meanwhile, covers some of the same ground as Walk the Line, the big-screen film where Reese Witherspoon gave an Oscar-winning performance as June. But — adapted by Richard Friedenberg from Anchored in Love: An Intimate Portrait of June Carter Cash, a memoir by Johnny and June’s son John Carter Cash — it is far more about June’s life before Johnny (she was married twice before) and how she handled various crises during their marriage. It begins with June’s childhood as part of the musical Carter family, and looks at her own development as a performer, from a figure who for a time specialized in comedy to a respected musician.
Not only did she co-write Ring of Fire, she brought a spark to Johnny’s performances when they sang together (go back and listen to her tearing into their Jackson duet) — as well as a strong will and a basic elegance. Jewel ably captures much of that, and her gestures indicate a very close study of June’s performing style. And Ross makes a pretty good Johnny.
That said, Jewel does not quite pull off June’s biggest dramatic moment, dealing with Johnny’s going into the Betty Ford clinic. And, as I said, June’s story is so rich that this movie should have been longer; Anchored in Love has enough stories for a miniseries. But Anders gets the griminess of a musical life, and that last scene still pays off; just as Behind the Candelabra shows what happens without real love, so Ring of Fire shows how a strong, passionate commitment can weather many storms.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or email@example.com.