Th 80’s saw more than its fair share of musical biopics. From Coal Miner’s Daughter to La Bamba to, heck, Amadeus…there were plenty of them covering all sorts of music genres. Plus, the timing was right to look back at the golden age of rock’n’roll and its pioneers. Ripe for the biopic treatment was the Killer himself, Jerry Lee Lewis. His manic energy and controversial personal life seemed to have cinematic potential, so in 1989 we got this look at his early career, Great Balls of Fire!
Our story really kicks in around 1956, when a twenty year old Jerry Lee Lewis (Dennis Quaid) first comes to Memphis, TN to try and record a hit record, just like Elvis. He ends up staying with the family of his cousin J.W. Brown (John Doe), who also plays bass in Jerry’s band. It takes some time, but some execs at Sun Records see some potential in Jerry and soon the two cousins start to experience success. Jerry soon becomes known as quite a wild figure in popular music, much to the chagrin of another one of his cousins, up-and-coming evangelist Jimmy Swaggart (Alec Baldwin).
There’s a problem, though. It seems that J.W.’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Myra (Winona Ryder), has a bit of a crush on Jerry. Many teenage girls do, after all, but the thing is Jerry’s kind of sweet on her, too. Well, as Jerry’s career really starts to take off, he and Myra start to get more serious, and eventually marry. Now remember, not only is she his second cousin, she’s also thirteen! Eventually, the news of this union hits the press while Jerry and his band are in England to perform. This leads to huge controversy on both sides of the pond and soon both Jerry’s career and personal life suffer.
There are certainly interesting, if not bizarre, elements of the Jerry Lee Lewis story, but I’m not sure if it’s really enough to sustain a feature film biopic. The main things this film banks on is that Lewis had some hit records and then went and did something most folks wouldn’t do…like marrying your second cousin. It’s padded out a bit by focusing on the novelty that a figure as controversial as Jerry Lee Lewis also happened to be cousins with a famous preacher, but that element of the story really has no real bearing on the story being told.
Ultimately, the film really hinges on the performance of its lead, Dennis Quaid, which is best described as cartoonish. Now, it’s arguable that Jerry Lee Lewis himself was pretty cartoonish,but Quaid seems to be raising the level considerably. No line of dialogue is delivered without flips of the hair, eyebrow twitches or nostrils flared. Strangely, the rest of the cast follows suit, which gives the impression that Memphis, TN must be one of the loopiest places on earth. Alec Baldwin especially turns in a whack-job performance which only seems driven by a desire to further beat down Swaggart. If you recall, the preacher’s prostitution scandal and tearful “I have sinned” confession had occurred just a year and a half before this film was released. Also coming across as quite cartoony is Winona Ryder, but at least there is a playfulness to her performance that succeeds in being charming.
Also quite entertaining, and probably the primary reason to watch this film, are the musical sequences in which Quaid reenacts Lewis performances. The songs were all re-recorded by Lewis himself. Quaid, of course, lip-synchs but does manage to bring a level of energy that comes close to matching that of the original artist. There is a showstopping sequence in which Lewis, angry because he doesn’t get to close the show and Chuck Berry does, first decides to set fire to his piano during “Great Balls of Fire.” “Follow that!” he says to Berry as he walks off the stage.
Great Balls of Fire has some solid moments, but its odd tone just felt a bit off to me. It never seems to advance too far beyond saying, “Hey look, this guy married his second cousin…isn’t that weird!” The musical moments are fun, but it ultimately feels like a rather trivial look at a rock’n’roll legend.
Note: Great Balls of Fire! was recently released on DVD and BluRay by Olive Films. They were kind enough to let us get a look at a copy. Big thanks to them.