great balls of fire, biographical film, biography, review, biopic

Great Balls of Fire! (1989) 

Fans of Jerry Lee Lewis may not know how to respond to this biopic of the rock and roll legend. On the one hand Great Balls of Fire! avoids some of the more controversial details of his life by focusing on the years between 1956 and 1958. The downside is their idol’s story is reduced to a live-action cartoon reminiscent of 1950’s rock and roll films like The Girl Can’t Help It. More neutral observers will likely take the good with the bad, revelling in a great soundtrack with new recordings by The Killer himself wrapped in a film that’s like a Doris Day rom-com on acid.

Putting a spin on the oft told tale of Sam Phillips finding in Elvis a white singer who sounded black, the famed record producer signs up Lewis after hearing a piano player with a white right hand and a black left hand. However it's not until he adapts the R&B song "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" into a rockabilly version that Lewis hits the big time. The title song, and his biggest hit, follow shortly afterwards while a tour of Great Britain beckons. With Elvis recently drafted into the army it seems like nothing can stand in the way of Lewis being crowned the new King of Rock and Roll. Except perhaps marrying his 13-year-old cousin, Myra.

Dennis Quaid’s portrayal of Jerry Lee Lewis has come in for a lot of criticism, and it’s true that at times he seems to be channelling Daffy Duck, Foghorn Leghorn and Goofy (he even exclaims ‘Golly’ when signing a contract with Sun Records). Yet it’s entirely in keeping with film’s overall tone. His performance on The Steve Allen Show is watched on by Elvis, the Beavers and Mickey Mouse’s dog Pluto; “High School Confidential” is accompanied by dancing students and disapproving teachers; and “Breathless” provides the soundtrack for Myra’s shopping splurge. In this role, Winona Ryder is alternately exasperating and delightful.

Alec Baldwin also appears as future TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggart. Though Lewis’s dismissive attitude towards his cousin aligns with the biopic’s levity, it downplays the conflict the deeply religious singer reportedly felt about playing ‘the devil’s music’.  It is one of many missed opportunities in this flawed, yet entertaining, biopic. As The Killer himself said after viewing the film, “They really fouled it up, the way they did it”.

Dennis Quaid, Jerry Lee Lewis, Robert Lesser, Alan Freed, Steve Allen
Dennis Quaid
Dennis Quaid

as Jerry Lee Lewis

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Michael St. Gerard
Michael St. Gerard

as Elvis Presley

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Robert Lesser
Robert Lesser

as Alan Freed

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Steve Allen
Steve Allen

as Steve Allen

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fact check, factcheck, fact vs fiction, inaccuracies, true story

Though Myra states in the film that she is Jerry’s second cousin twice removed, most sources list her as his first cousin once removed.

 

In Myra's autobiography, on which this film is based, Jerry Lee Lewis proposed to her two days before they got married, rather than on the way to the church.

Michael St. Gerard, Elvis Presley

Only mention of Jerry Lee Lewis’ film appearances is a passing reference to High School Confidential.