Director Jim McBride puts retro magic into a rock ‘n’ roll bio about a big talent who was probably more fun on stage than in person. Dennis Quaid hits the right note of insanity for his portrayal of Jerry Lee Lewis’s rise to fame and fortune. Winona Ryder’s hilarious, almost scary bobby-sox Lolita becomes Jerry’s girl bride. Everything’s ducky until the real-life story goes sour, leaving the comic characterizations high and dry.
Great Balls of Fire!
1989 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 108 min. / Street Date February 27, 2018 / available through the Olive Films website / 29.98
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Winona Ryder, John Doe, Stephen Tobolowsky, Trey Wilson, Alec Baldwin, Steve Allen, Jimmie Vaughan, Lisa Blount, Lisa Jane Persky, Peter Cook, Joe Bob Briggs.
Cinematography: Affonso Beato
Film Editor: Lisa Day, Pembroke Herring, Bert Lovitt
Production Design: David Nichols
Written by Jim McBride & Jack Baran, from a book by Myra Lewis and Murray Silver
Produced by Adam Fields
Directed by Jim McBride
Writer director Jim McBride is best known for 1986’s The Big Easy, a picture that somehow escaped me. But I am very familiar with his initial avant-garde hit David Holtzman’s Diary and his mud & rags apocalyptic drama Glen and Randa. I worked in a Westwood parking lot next to the one L.A. theater that played it for a couple of weeks way back when, and can still rememember the hippies coming out smelling of dope and proclaiming it an instant classic.
McBride’s 1989 Great Balls of Fire! reunites him with his Big Easy star Dennis Quaid for another attempt at mainstream success, via a Rock ‘n’ Roll musical bio. The genre had been having a good ride at the time, with laudable, sentimental hits about Buddy Holly (1978), Patsy Cline (Sweet Dreams, 1985), and Richie Valens (1987). Actually, beating them all was Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), Michael Apted’s bio of country star Loretta Lynn. By and large, these newer pictures were more accurate than the old MGM-style bios about the great melody makers of the first half of the century, which tended to be wholly invented fantasies.
McBride collaborated with his old writing and acting cohort Jack Baran, who also often served as a music consultant and editor. Great Balls of Fire! is different in that it takes on one of early Rock’s most controversial and ambivalent figures, a moving target of daring showmanship and personal scandal. Pianist Jerry Lee Lewis not only embraced rhythm & blues from black performers, he channeled the unbridled sexuality as well. His biggest songs were clearly suggestive. His stage persona and act went way beyond the relatively tame hip-swinging of Elvis Presley.
Lewis — who is still living and breathing to this day — remains a problematic main character. His personality wasn’t universally likable, either. His boastful and unapologetic stage persona could be tough going, even before the scandals all but ended his career. The revivalist movement to ban Rock ‘n’ Roll used his music as a focus point.
McBride therefore makes Great Balls of Fire! as much about the thrill and daring of early Rock as about Lewis himself. Dennis Quaid all but goes nuts trying to express Jerry Lee’s wild man ethos. McBride’s energies go into orchestrating the late- ’50s cultural circus around him, that often turns the show into an extended MTV- type music montage. Much of this succeeds, as do the biographical details. Lee and his pals came out of a very humble working class background, which is presented with great affection. When success comes, the most amazing reward these people can imagine is to buy a shiny new convertible car!
The best thing going in Great Balls is young Winona Ryder in her fourth picture, following the mainstream hit Beetlejuice and the cult winner Heathers. Ms. Ryder steals the show as Lewis’ impetuous, dizzy-headed young bride, Myra, who married him when she was thirteen. The real Myra wrote the book this is claimed as a source in the credits. By and large the movie treats the child bride aspect as a big joke, a wild & crazy approach that feels liberating, at least at first.
In the photos available online, the actual, real life newlywed Myra Lewis looks to be thirteen going on nine. No wonder the balls of fire hit the fan, public relations-wise.
The show begins with the obligatory Rock origins flashback depicting the adolescent Jerry Lee Lewis learning everything he needs to know from black entertainers — both the fancy piano moves, and the liberating energy of lewd exhibitionism. While trying to bust through at Sun Records, where Elvis was discovered, Jerry (Dennis Quaid) teams up with his brother-in-law J.W. Brown (John Doe), and lives in Brown’s house, where also dwells young Myra Brown (Winona Ryder). Jerry Lee has an ego even bigger than his talent. Sun Records’ Sam Phillips (Trey Wilson, perfect) likes Lewis’s country sounds but advises against the suggestive stuff. Just the same, both Phillips and his payola pusher brother Jud Phillips (Stephen Tobolowsky, even more perfect) can’t deny that Lewis’s wild man act, jumping up and down as as he pounds pianos, is a phenomenon that might even eclipse Elvis. Jerry Lee rockets to success yet keeps most of his life in balance, including a touchy relationship with his cousin, the real Bible thumper Jimmy Swaggart (Alec Baldwin).
When Jerry Lee and Myra run away to get married, their sincerity wins the day — coupled with the Browns’ desire not to kill off the Golden Goose of Lewis’s career. All seems to go well, despite some expected infidelity on Jerry Lee’s part. Only a year into his success, he insists on bringing Myra with him on a concert tour of England. The facts of their marriage come out, along with Jerry’s two marriages before taking his child bride. Jerry Lee is defiant, the international press is scandalized, and everything falls apart like a house of cards.
Much of Great Balls of Fire! is invented and exaggerated, but its first two acts now play as a diverting musical rollercoaster. It’s gussied up with flashy cars, green lawns and a modest record industry that launched national hitmakers and culture superstars out of backwater storefronts. A natural ham and self-promoter, the rooster-like Jerry Lee crows about his, “Gawd-given talent!” like a Louisiana Cassius Clay, and has a wicked smile and roving eye for every girl he sees. He is dead serious about honing his edgy stage act, and he’s a hell of a piano player, even when dancing circles at the same time. Couple that with the unbridled come-ons of the lyrics of ‘Whole Lotta Shakin Goin On’ and ‘Great Balls of Fire!’ and Lewis hit the music scene like a bazooka.
Dennis Quaid has the energy and the attitude, and he convincingly lip-syncs the Lewis hits. He also succeeds in wearing a crazy wardrobe that by rights ought to wearing him. The star’s big records do sound rather similar, but Great Balls of Fire! succeeds in keeping him fresh for a full 108 minutes. Jim McBride orchestrates and choreographs much of the movie for racy fun, and not just when Lewis is on stage. He drives cars like a maniac and drives the girls crazy with antics that would outrage their fathers. There’s no question that he channels his sex drive into his act. At one point he corrals three 13-year-olds by rolling his piano around the room, and pinning them in a corner.
Winona Ryder’s Myra enters the film in a perfectly-timed shot in which she pops her bubble gum bubble while descending from a bus. The touchy business of underaged romance is handled beautifully, thanks to Ryder’s understanding of the role. Myra Brown spends much of her time staring mouth agape at the utter unbelievability of her own life. She’s as immature as one would expect, but nothing is going to keep her away from her dream man. The playing-around-on-the-floor antics can be a little disconcerting, as in possible jail time for Jerry Lee. But the screenplay insists that the Myra-Jerry relationship was chaste until after they married.
Purposely going out on a limb, the film depicts the wedding night of the shockingly underaged Myra. Lewis becomes angry for an unforgivably chauvinistic reason: he thinks his virgin bride ‘moves’ as if she has too much previous experience. The pressure on Myra is just bizarre.
The show strikes an uncomfortable balance between comedy and (twisted) social comment. The Baby Bride idea can’t be laughed off as one more kooky custom of the 1950s. It’s as disturbing now as it was then, a bad idea all around. Does Jerry Lee want a wife, or a pet wife, like a cute puppy? Great Balls leaps ahead with more events in the crazy life of a music legend, but our minds are stuck back on the main issue, thinking about legal minimum ages for marriage and other adult activities. Instead of saying, who’s to judge?, the unavoidable conclusion is that the whole idea is just wrong, that Jerry Lee is some kind of lower-grade sex offender.
The movie loses its spirit when the scandal clobbers Myra and Jerry in London. No seriously wrong moves are made, but all the show can offer is a rather shallow church scene in which Jerry Lee proclaims, ‘I gotta be me.’ Okay, that’s fine, but we still don’t really understand what makes him tick. If he’s this one-dimensional in his aims, he’s also less interesting.
The movie throws a lot of exciting stuff into the stew, and most of it works. Ideas that ought NOT to work work like magic. A montage of film clips shows ’50s viewers and icons reacting to Jerry Lee, among them the parents from Leave it to Beaver and little Tuesday Weld. Straight from traditional musicals comes the sight of Jerry driving through town while choreographed groups of citizens rock out to his music. That gag only falters when the cutting alternates images of rockin’ civil right marchers and rockin’ redneck sheriffs. Jerry Lee’s music wasn’t ‘uniting’. . . I can’t see either of those groups having a big sense of humor about a vulgar white boy making hay from black music rhythms.
A few minor touches things don’t quite come together either. Myra’s shopping montage plays like a slick TV commercial of the time. Young Myra is concerned about nuclear bombs, which becomes another touch-base acknowledgement of a ’50s theme. A midnight TV viewing of the atom scare Sci-fi thriller Five leads Jerry Lee and Myra to a no-no make-out session on the living room floor. I’d claim bad taste, but I’d agree that that’s a good description of middle-class teen romance in this era.
Although Alec Baldwin gives his all to his Jimmy Swaggart act, this show isn’t big enough to support two inspired maniacs. The movie doesn’t want to get in a ruckus over evangelists, any more than it wants to get serious about underage marriage. Jerry Lee engages with the come-to-Jesus demands of his soon-to-be-famous cousin, only to choose show biz every time. Nothing seems resolved when a final title tells us that Jerry Lee (in 1989) is ‘still out there somewhere entertaining people.’ I prefer to remember the movie’s buoyant spirit and sense of fun, before the final twenty minutes or so.
For succeeding with difficult comedy roles, Quaid and Ryder earn highest marks. We also have a great time with Stephen Tobolowski and Trey Wilson, calming influences that all but wilt when their golden England tour goes up in smoke. Also doing excellent work are John Doe and Lisa Blount as Myra’s distracted-by-loot parents. They really allow things to get out of hand, but we understand why — wave the consumer dream in front of the average working person, and they’ll go for it no matter what the price. J.W. Brown’s assault on Sun records with a loaded gun shouldn’t be even slightly amusing now, but the film’s tone makes it acceptable.
Olive Films’ Blu-ray of Great Balls of Fire! is a great disc, improving greatly on the cable TV snippets of the show that I’ve seen previously. The show is colorful, witty and charming; almost thirty years down the line, both Ryder and Quaid make a great pair of nut cases.
The audio, which is apparently mono, has been mixed to blast out full force and sound great. Jerry Lee Lewis reportedly made new recordings for the soundtrack. That says something for his staying power, as he doesn’t sound any older at all. Although the star said he didn’t like the movie, which McBride never claimed was a literal documentary, he certainly cooperated with the production.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Great Balls of Fire!
Movie: Very Good +
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 3, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson