Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

Same Song, Different Movie: Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash

This is the next entry in a series from early 2012 that looks at the use of “needle dropped” songs, many of them popular tunes, in movies. Specifically, in more than one. Yet they are not officially considered part of a film’s score. A score consists of those orchestral, choral, or instrumental pieces some consider background music. Both music forms are equally utilized as cues by filmmakers for a specific purpose or to elicit certain reactions by the audience.

I’m fascinated by this in general, and movie soundtracks have long intrigued me. This convergence of the music and film arts I’ve spent much time toward. My wife can confirm this. Some (not all) movie soundtracks have incorporated those songs the director or music programmer showcased in their production along with the film’s score.

A few filmmakers have made it part of their work to incorporate well-known or popular song as a recurrent element. Why not? Music and movies make for a wonderful tandem, and I regularly watch out for them. As usual, I give credit to my blogging colleague over at Fog’s Movie Review for helping to ignite this series care of his excellent post, Tossin’ It Out There: What’s YOUR Favorite Song From a Movie?:

“… there’s a deep connection between the two arts, and sometimes that winds up creating an inseparable bond between the two in the viewer’s mind.”

The final series entry of this woeful year will focus once again on an early ’60s number. Yes, it’s accredited to June Carter1 and Merle Kilgore, but how can it not be more associated2 with country music legend Johnny Cash, I ask you. Ring of Fire his biggest hit, recorded and released in the Spring of ’63, has reverberated across the decades. Covered numerous times3 by rock (Eric Burdon & the Animals) and country (Dwight Yoakam) artists, this hot-blooded ballad made its way on to movie screens, as well.

Naturally, the most recent Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line featured the song.

In the two instances marked here, though contrasting genres, each were appropriately “passion plays”, in essence (and a tad twisted); and delivered their differing fervor almost ten years apart through the use of Ring of Fire‘s ardent lyrics and Cash’s distinct baritone on the characters involved, and their motives.

U Turn (1997)

u-turnScreenwriter-film director-producer Oliver Stone no stranger to this series (as seen here and here). Like it or not, his work is never boring. U Turn, an under-appreciated neo noir of the ’90s is that…in spades…as it follows an ill-fated Bobby (Sean Penn). Driving through the Arizona desert on his way to payoff the gangsters he owes, who’ve already taken two of his fingers as a late payment penalty. Forced to a detour to Superior, AZ, he becomes involved with Grace (Jennifer Lopez) to an even more tumultuous turn. Meeting the jealous town bully Toby4 at the local diner offers the audience a musical hint that his budding lovelust is but a shared exploit, now taking new purchase. Ring of Fire makes a jukebox appearance as the Sheriff (Powers Boothe) interrupts what’s brewing as Bobby’s unbeknownst and nefarious guardian angel5; the act and lyrics cluing that our lead has fallen into something searing:

I fell into a burning ring of fire
I went down, down, down
And the flames went higher
And it burns, burns, burns
The ring of fire

Silent Hill (2006)

silent-hillAlmost a decade later, the song would have another, more haunting, jukebox manifestation. For of all things, the screen distillation of a Japanese survival horror video game, created by Keiichiro Toyama. Adapted and directed by a French director-producer-writer with only a handful of films to his credit, Christophe Gans has made a name for himself as a visual stylist and a believer that “…today the horror genre is very feminine.” Silent Hill a case in point for both. The supernatural psychological horror film a study on the length a mother will go for her child. Rose (Radha Mitchell) scours in search of her adopted daughter within the confines of an eerie, abandoned town called Silent Hill6. She awakens as Ring of Fire suddenly plays on the jukebox in the bowling alley after having been assaulted by the unearthly Grey Children in her quest. The song’s title and meaning symbolic of what she’ll do to find her missing daughter, including descending into the depths of an alternate reality marked by fire and blood.

The entire series can be found here.

  1. Johnny Cash later married June in 1968 and credited her for saving his life by helping him get off drugs. She’d die in 2003 after 35 years of marriage to the renowned rockabilly rebel-singer-songwriter. 
  2. In her autobiography I Walked the Line, Johnny Cash’s first wife, Vivian Cash, denies that June Carter had any part in writing “Ring of Fire.” In her words: “She didn’t write that song any more than I did. The truth is, Johnny wrote that song, while piled up and drunk, about a certain private female body part.” ~ Songfacts 
  3. Cash’s version is in fact a cover of Ring of Fire, originally recorded in 1962 by June’s sister, Anita Carter, as “(Love’s) Ring of Fire“. After it failed to chart Cash recorded it his way, adding the distinct mariachi-style horns to his arrangement. 
  4. Coincidentally, Joaquin Phoenix would portray Toby in U Turn and later Johnny Cash himself in Walk the Line
  5. U Turn, scored by the great Ennio Morricone, would repeat the musical motif later when the Sheriff stops and arrests the owed gangster on arrival; although, Toby attacks Bobby shortly thereafter when he thinks he’s safe. 
  6.  The since deserted Centralia, Pennsylvania the inspiration for the town in question. 

4 Responses to “Same Song, Different Movie: Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash”

  1. Vinyl Connection

    Fascinating song – thanks for this exploration. The collision of the sacred and profane gets me every time… and I don’t even particularly like Johnny Cash!

    Best for the Festive Season, Michael.

    Liked by 1 person


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