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‘Great Balls of Fire’

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 30, 1989


Jim McBride
Dennis Quaid;
Winona Ryder;
Alec Baldwin;
Trey Wilson
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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With a lot of help from Lady Clairol, Dennis Quaid proves at least tonsorially convincing in his mop-flopping, googly-eyed, gum-popping impression of Jerry Lee Lewis, a broadly comic portrait of the artist as Liberace's evil twin. No ivory-tickler, Lewis is and always was a Steinway abuser, an antic rocker locked in a love-hate relationship with his piano. Six wives later, it has proved his most stable.

"Great Balls of Fire" concentrates on the Killer's heavenly days -- blazing in '56, burned out in '58, a comet with its tail between its legs. Lewis's third marriage, to his 13-year-old second cousin Myra (Winona Ryder), smothered his career, a personal calamity that comes off here as camp comedy. The story producer Adam Fields once called "a great American tragedy worthy of Faulkner" is Southern-fried "Grease."

When Quaid and Fields decided the original script was too nasty for the mainstream, director Jim McBride rewrote it from the book by Lewis's child bride and Murray Silver Jr. And what he brings to the screen is a musical screwball bio-pic, a tall tale of hot wax, cool daddies-o and burning white baby grands. It laughs loud at the overnight superstar whose hillbilly outlook was too provincial for the big time.

The living legend is depicted as a mud-dumb bumpkin, a crazed Pentecostal splatter from Flannery O'Connor's ink pot. Quaid is method madness, all strut and bluster with a robotic way of moving his high-held head. A little bit C3PO, a little bit Foghorn Leghorn, he's more Jerry Lewis than Jerry Lee.

The story opens in Lewis's hometown of Ferriday, La., as little Jerry Lee and his cousin Jimmy Swaggart sneak out to a black honky-tonk. The gospel, which he plays with his right hand, he got from his Holy-Roller relatives, the boogie-woogie of the left he flat stole. "Let's play that 'Shakin' ' song," he says of a tune he learned in that same black club. And then Lewis gains national attention with his rip-roaring rendition of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On."

Quaid lip-syncs the lyrics, which the Killer himself belts out 32 years after the fact, to "Shakin'," "Great Balls of Fire," "Breathless" and "High School Confidential." Rock-and-roll aficionados will think they've died and gone to poodle-skirt heaven. McBride has great fun with one high school hop production number, a carousel of cartwheeling girls and boys with ducktails. There's another giddy scene in which Lewis, to spite Chuck Berry, literally sets his piano on fire, having already battered out "Great Balls."

Apparently the piano wasn't the only object of his wrath. Though Jerry Lee and his cousin-wife enjoy a kiddie marriage, he does hit her -- just once here -- after his star falls. At the height of his career, the two marry against her parents' wishes -- Jerry Lee still hasn't divorced his second wife -- and she accompanies him on a musical tour of "Angland." When the press gets wind of incest, bigamy and bassinet raiding, he is run out of the country and likewise condemned in the United States.

Winona Ryder, the homicidal coed of "Heathers," the rebellious teen of "Beetlejuice," adds another baby doll eccentric to her growing roster as the seventh-grade bride. "But I'm only 13," she whimpers, thinking of the pep rallies and slumber parties she'll miss if she agrees to be Mrs. Jerry Lee. And when she, sniffling, packs up her trousseau in her doll house, it's a scene out of a '50s sitcom Gothic, baby Alice Kramden goes to Graceland. Ryder's solid sense of character and even better sense of humor play paperweight to this flighty material.

The adult Swaggart (Alec Baldwin, too cute to be Jimmy) tries intermittently to save the singer's soul, and Elvis, whom Jerry Lee saw as his rival, pops in occasionally, once after he is drafted. "Go on, take it. Take the whole thing," says Presley of his kingdom. But Elvis held on to his crown, as he had sense enough to wait until Priscilla matured.

"Great Balls of Fire," like "La Bamba," is thin on the meaning of the life in question, but big on '50s Billboard nostalgia. It's lightweight archaeology, a bent American Bandstand biography. Something has slipped away from McBride, Quaid and Fields: the truth, the heart, the soul. All that's left is the hip.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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