A Movie A Day #173: Great Balls of Fire! (1989, directed by Jim McBride)


In the 1950s, Jerry Lee Lewis (Dennis Quaid) plays what his cousin, Jimmy Swaggart (Alec Baldwin), calls the devil’s music.  After signing a contract with Sam Phillips (Trey Wilson), Jerry becomes a star with his wild man persona and crazed piano playing.  When Elvis is drafted, it appears that Jerry is destined to take over as the new King of Rock and Roll.  But, then, while touring England, the press discovers that Jerry is married to his 13 year-old cousin, Myra (Winona Ryder).  When Jerry refuses to apologize for his private life, his career falls apart.

The real Jerry Lew Lewis has stated many times that he hates this musical biopic and that it has very little in common with his actual life.  Jerry has a point.  Great Balls of Fire is a highly stylized film, one that greatly sanitizes both the life of Jerry Lee Lewis and the early days of rock and roll.  In the film, there’s no struggle or even hard work on the road to becoming a star.  Jerry just drops off a recording of himself playing piano and viola! He’s a star!  Soon, teenagers are dancing around his convertible, both civil rights protestors and white Southern cops start dancing whenever they see him driving down the street, the local radio DJ waves whenever he sees them, and Jerry’s sneaking into Mississippi so that he can marry his thirteen year-old cousin.

Great Balls of Fire! takes a superficially mater of fact approach to Jerry’s marriage to Myra, neither condemning nor excusing, though it does cheat by casting the 18 year-old Winona Ryder as the 13 year-old Myra.  (If the film had cast an actress who was closer to Myra’s actual age, Great Balls of Fire! would never have been released.)  Fortunately, history helped the movie out by making Jimmy Swaggart into Jerry’s main critic.  Alec Baldwin’s performance as Jimmy Swaggart makes his interpretation of Donald Trump look subtle, nuanced, and award-worthy.

Dennis Quaid, at the height of his 80s stardom, is ideally cast as Jerry Lee Lewis, giving a good if broad performance and doing a convincing job lip-syncing to the music.  Quaid has said that he was struggling with an addiction to cocaine while filming Great Balls of Fire! and that might have made him the perfect actor to play the always conflicted and always wild Jerry Lee Lewis.  The best thing about the film is that Jerry Lee Lewis provided the music, re-recording his best known songs.  While the movie may not tell the true story of Jerry Lee Lewis, it does feature enough of his music that it is obvious why Jerry Lee Lewis nearly became the king of rock and roll.

 

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