Celluloid Country: Great Balls of Fire Less Than Killer
Today we’ll be looking at the Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire, which my handy Comcast guide describes as a look into the Killer’s “unconventional personal relationships.” Well, I guess that’s a nice way of putting it when a fella is a bigamist by age 17 and marries his teenage cousin just a few short years later.
Making a movie about a man like Jerry Lee Lewis is pretty much a no-brainer. He did more before the age of 30 than most do in an entire life, recorded some of American music’s greatest works to date, and had a pretty salacious personal life. Great Balls of Fire, released in 1989, is based on the tell-all book of the same name written by Wife #3, Myra Lewis. The book is still on my lengthy to-read list, so I’m going to hold out hope that it’s better than the film.
The music itself takes a backseat in Great Balls of Fire, even though “The Killer Himself,” as he’s credited, rerecorded his most famous Rock & Roll songs for the movie (the film ends before Jerry Lee begins recording country music in the ’60s, though you do get to hear his version of “Crazy Arms”). There’s one nice moment where Lewis hears Roy Hall’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” sung by a woman in a blues club and the film then cuts to Lewis’ performance of the song. It’s a shame that a movie about one of Rock & Roll’s greatest musicians has so little music—though it does have a choreographed dance scene when Jerry Lee picks up his child bride from school.
The best part of Great Balls of Fire is its stars. Punk rocker/country singer/Celluloid Country favorite John Doe plays Lewis’ bass player/cousin/father-in-law JW, while Alec Baldwin does a fine job as another one of Lewis’ cousins, the preacher Jimmy Swaggart. Winona Ryder, then 18 years old and straight off of cult film classic Heathers, plays a lovestruck 13-year old Myra. Dennis Quaid does the best he can, but Lewis is a pretty complex character, and Quaid isn’t given much of an opportunity to explore Lewis’ depths. Quaid does well with the “gum chomping, cocky bastard with ferocious stage presence” Jerry Lee, and many of the shortcomings of his character can be equally attributed to the script, which is shallow, poorly written, and not entirely sure whether it wants to be a drama with the occasional funny moment, or a comedy with a few serious scenes.
Great Balls of Fire does a pretty decent job of covering the scandal that torpedoed Lewis’ career when, on his first overseas tour, the British press found out about his teenage wife, and done properly, a Lewis biopic would be a wonderful film (and probably about four hours long, in order incorporate all of his various trials and tribulations).
But this movie is just a mess. It glosses over some of the most important, interesting, and movie-worthy moments in the Killer’s life: his first two marriages, the time spent paying his dues in various Louisiana juke joints, and his long struggle between God’s word and the devil’s music (Lewis was kicked out of bible college for playing a Rock & Roll version of “My God is Real;” however, the recent A Half Century of Hits box set features a track entitled “Religious Discussion,” which gives a look into Lewis’ views on religion as he debates with Sam Phillips.).
If you want a warts-and-all look into the life of Jerry Lee Lewis, pick up a copy of Nick Tosches’ stunning book Hellfire (1982). Painstakingly researched and beautifully written, it reads like an enthralling novel, almost Faulknerian in scope and prose style. Plus it starts with an epigraph from Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” just in case your life was lacking some 17th century Puritanism. Or just get yourself a handful of Jerry Lee Lewis albums. Whether he’s singing country or rock & roll, you can learn a whole lot about Jerry Lee just by listening to him sing and play like a man possessed.
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