Great Balls of Fire!

Dir: Jim McBride, 1989. Starring: Dennis Quaid, Winona Ryder, Alec Baldwin, John Doe. Drama.
Great Balls of Fire!

Great Balls of Fire!, the sort of tragic but really fun story of Jerry Lee Lewis, is a movie as bonkers as its hellcat hero. Lewis was a first class creep who made enough bad decisions to fill up a whole heap of country records many times over but he has more scorching Lucifer-bestowed talent than you, me, and all of our friends put together, probably. He got the biopic he deserved in this cranked up Southern exploitation romp that manages to both vilify and celebrate “the Killer” at the same time without any useless moral handwringing that would’ve sounded an insufferably false note anyway.

Dennis Quaid is a terribly wonderful, terribly underrated actor and he goes all out with his Killer. Looking like a Deep South doppelganger of Cesar Romero’s the Joker from the 1960’s Batman TV show, he’s a demonic pretty boy in a yellow suit who knows he can steal the show from anyone he’s put onstage with. He charms and infuriates all the people hitched to his star, be it Sam Phillips of Sun Records (played by the late, great Trey Wilson) or his bandmates (including John Doe from X). Alec Baldwin plays his (later to be notorious) cousin, preacher Jimmy Swaggart. Everyone seems to want a piece of Jerry Lee, from a groupie who makes off with a lock of his golden hair to his “man of God” cousin who even then was a terrible hypocrite while up there on his bully pulpit.

Things get weird and the story becomes harder to stomach with the introduction of Winona Ryder’s character, Jerry Lee’s 13-year-old cousin Myra. Jerry Lee has a thing for her and he dives right in, with her parents’ approval no less. To the film’s credit, the intense creepiness of their relationship is not played down, in fact it’s wallowed in. As his star rises his romance intensifies with Myra and soon they marry. She brings her dollhouse with her when she moves in with him.

The disclosure of their marriage, her age, and the fact that Myra’s related to Jerry Lee proves to be a PR disaster that he never recovers from and the film takes on the atmosphere of an exaggerated 1950s teensploitation flick. In one scene, Myra talks about her fear of an alien invasion outside an ice cream shop while a Theremin quivers dreamily in the background. In another, the whole of Memphis does the “shame-shame-shame” hand wringing signal at the besieged couple as they drive down the road as if in a musical number from one of those ‘50s rock n’ roll variety show movies.

Director Jim McBride seems to have adopted a go-for-broke attitude in order to tell the Killer’s story. He was criticized by several people depicted in the film (including Lewis) for not sticking to the facts and instead doing a sort of funhouse impression of Jerry Lee and his wild times. He creates a punked up pastiche of 1950s Americana and rock n’ roll mythology. It’s a great Memphis movie. It’s also a film where nothing is played exactly straight and the tone veers from sympathetic to snottily arch and exaggerated. It’s never really clear whether McBride is celebrating the Killer and the peculiarly bent Southern world he came out of or mocking him for all its worth. Maybe it’s a bit of both because that’s the only way you can talk about Jerry Lee Lewis – as one of the coolest creeps who ever lived still out there “playing his heart out every night" as the film reminds us at the end.

Posted by:
Matt Messbarger
Oct 29, 2013 1:46pm
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