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Great Balls of Fire!
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Dennis Quaid tears into the role of rock ’n’ roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis in this odd little not-exactly-biopic / not-quite-docudrama. Great Balls of Fire! plays more like a Tex Avery cartoon, or perhaps an upbeat high school musical, about one of the more dark and disturbing lives in music history. The film chronicles the early career of Lewis, from his rise as a local performer in eastern Louisiana, to an international sensation, to the controversial marriage to his thirteen-year-old cousin that led to his downfall. Lewis, a piano player in a genre defined and dominated by the guitar, had such a unique, high-energy stage presence (which Quaid captures perfectly) that many thought he would supplant Elvis Presley as the "King of Rock ’n’ Roll” when Presley got drafted into the army. However, when the cocky, high-flying Lewis began to court Myra Gale, his just-reached-teenage first-cousin-once-removed (and the daughter of one of his bandmates), even his unwavering belief in himself couldn’t save him from scandal. In the late 1950s, when the then twenty-two and already twice divorced Lewis married Myra, a coupling of this sort was not exactly uncommon in Louisiana. But when Myra accompanied Lewis and his band to the UK for a tour and the British press caught wind of the relationship, it stirred a career-killing controversy from which the legendary performer never fully recovered.

The film is based on the autobiography of Myra Gale Lewis, and the screenplay follows some of the key narrative beats but not the focus or tone. Director / co-writer Jim McBride (who helmed the surprisingly good American remake of Breathless and directed Quaid in the 1986 hit The Big Easy) treats the subject matter almost the way former Warner Bros. animation director Frank Tashlin might have in one of his live-action pictures (like The Girl Can't Help It or Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, which were made during the same era Lewis became famous in). But, unlike Tashlin, McBride takes this cartoony approach seriously. This movie is anything but subtle. It begins with a young Jerry Lee literally "crossing the tracks" to the black neighborhood on the other side of his home town to absorb the music that he would later appropriate and make popular on white radio. There’s even a shot where he plays piano with an African-American player that McBride photographs as if there is just one player with one black hand and one white hand. 

Quaid nails Lewis’s cocksure bravado, larger than life presentation, arrogance, and charisma. “The Killer himself" performs all the singing and piano playing for the movie, and Quaid spent a lot of time with the real-life Lewis; studying at his right hand on the keyboards and hanging around with him socially for all of pre-production and shooting (which led to a stint in rehab for the actor). A young Alec Baldwin turns up as Lewis’s cousin Jimmy Swaggart, who, during the period before Swaggart became one of the most famous televangelists of the ‘80s, was a struggling Pentecostal preacher. The scenes where these two debate morality are pretty amusing. 

Winona Ryder, then a rising star from her roles in Beetlejuice and Heathers, does a fine job playing the thirteen-year-old Myra. Ryder was just eighteen at the time of shooting and Quaid was thirty-four, but while their age difference was more significant than the real-life couple, Ryder's established screen presence in movies like Lucas and especially Heathers (which was released six months prior to Great Balls of Fire!) makes her seem a great deal older than the actual Myra Gale. Thus, the relationship at the center of this movie comes across as far less creepy than it must have actually been—Jerry Lee and Myra almost seem as innocent as two high-schoolers with crushes on each other. Indeed the intent of this strange picture is to make a feel-good, PG-13 fantasy about a man whose life was a laundry list of tragedy and dysfunction: alcoholism, violence, abuse, and broken relationships with friends, band-mates, family members, and his seven wives. It goes without saying that only the Hollywood of the late 1980s would tell this dark story in this fun and frolicking way, but I have no doubt that if we ever get a contemporary Jerry Lee Lewis biopic it would be nowhere near as good as Great Balls of Fire!  This celebratory film, which focuses entirely on the ways Lewis was special in the world of music (as opposed to all the troubles that made him the same as every other rock star who has ever had a movie made about their life) shamelessly entertains like only an ‘80s movie can. 

Twitter Capsule:
Quaid nails the bravado and showmanship of Jerry Lee Lewis in this sugarcoated, not-quite-biopic/not-quite-docudrama about the early career of one of rock 'n' roll's first wild men and the controversial marriage that led to his downfall. 

Directed by Jim McBride
Produced by Adam Fields

Screenplay by Jack Baran and Jim McBride
Based on the book by Myra Lewis and Murray Silver

With: Dennis Quaid, Winona Ryder, John Doe, Stephen Tobolowsky, Trey Wilson, Alec Baldwin, Steve Allen, Lisa Blount, Joshua Sheffield, Mojo Nixon, Jimmie Vaughan, David Ferguson, Robert Lesser, Lisa Jane Persky, and Peter Cook

Cinematography: Affonso Beato
Editing: Pembroke J. Herring, Bert Lovitt, and Lisa Day

Runtime: 108 min
Release Date: 30 June 1989
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1