Grade: B
Entire family: No—high school age and older
1989, 108 min., Color
Biopic
Olive Films
Rated PG-13 for some sexual content, language and drug material
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
The real Lewis performing
Amazon link

He was rock ‘n’ roll’s first great wild man, playing the piano with fierce showmanship while singing a string of his early classic hits: “Crazy Arms,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Breathless,” and “High School Confidential.” But then he got a little too close to his teeny-bopper audience, and it burned him big-time. His asking price for a single appearance dropped from $10,000 to $250 dollars, almost overnight.

It’s impossible to separate Jerry Lee Lewis, one of the biggest stars of the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, from Jerry Lee Lewis, the 23 year old who married his 13-year-old first cousin once removed—that is, the daughter of a cousin who was a member of his band.

A year after Winona Ryder starred in the edgy Heathers and a year before she fell for Johnny Depp’s character in Edward Scissorhands she played Myra Gale Brown, who became the most famous 13 year old in rock ‘n’ roll history. It’s hard to tell what was more scandalous: her age, the marriage to Lewis (played here with great accuracy by Dennis Quaid), or the fact that she was his third wife . . . and rumor had it he never officially got divorced from #2.

Doesn’t sound like a movie for the family, does it? Then again, have you taken a look at young adult fiction recently? The books read by teens today have all manner of frank topics in them. Teens are more aware and grown up these days than they were in the 1950s, and that gap in awareness will probably prompt a few discussions and raise a few eyebrows. Great Balls of Fire! is pretty tame by contemporary standards and may actually serve as a cautionary tale. Lewis married one cousin, but another cousin holds him up as an example of someone who chose the wrong path, the devil’s path. That young cousin, who was as close to Lewis as a brother, would grow up to be famed television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart—played by a very young Alec Baldwin (yes, the same Alec Baldwin who’s now ruffling Pres. Trump’s feathers by spoofing him on SNL). And as Lewis says to his cousin, who’s ready to shoot him for marrying his daughter, he did it for love. She was still a virgin when they married, and the marriage wasn’t consummated until much afterwards in a scene that shows only their faces. Even when he’s pressured to leave his child bride behind when he goes on tour, he refuses, standing defiantly by her and their decision to marry, even when things get unbearably hot.

Of the three biopics about the early stars of rock ‘n’ roll, La Bamba (the Ritchie Valens story) and The Buddy Holly Story have been better received than Great Balls of Fire! and the exclamation point offers as good an explanation as any. Because Valens and Holly were killed along with the Big Bopper in a plane crash on Feb. 3—widely known as the Day the Music Died—their biopics have been necessarily respectful and truthful. But Jerry Lee Lewis was still alive when this 1989 movie was made, and he’s still alive. A flamboyant personality and true wild man, he rerecorded his early songs for the movie so that all the music you hear is Jerry Lee himself. It’s no surprise then that this is a fictionalized biography that mythologizes Lewis and captures his arrogant and wild side better than a dry factual biopic. And it’s mostly true. The interactions with Elvis and Chuck Berry are intended to make him look good, but this isn’t a whitewash job. Lewis comes across as a tremendously talented man with more than a few tragic flaws in this musical drama with comedic moments.

Ironically, the embellishments that critics hated when the film was first released now make Great Balls of Fire! the more entertaining film of the three early rocker biopics. Quaid really nails the mannerisms and facial expressions of Lewis, even if some of the over-the-top moments seem exaggerated because of time compression. Ryder, meanwhile, is authentic and absolutely wonderful as a bubbly and flirtatious teenager whose facial expressions displayed an enviable range even then. Mostly, though, there’s the music itself. While Quaid’s lip-synching isn’t always the best, you tend to overlook it because of the songs’ energy and the way he otherwise brings Lewis to life. Whether it’s Jerry Lee cruising the streets and waving to appreciative fans or record promoters hand delivering new cuts to the radio stations for instant fan polling, you get a pretty good sense of the early days of rock ‘n’ roll and what Lewis brought to the table.

As a postscript, Lewis was married seven times, and his marriage to Myra was the second longest at, appropriately, 13 years.

Language: Surprisingly mild—no swearwords stand out
Violence: Lewis does hit Myra once, and he trashes a room in anger
Sex: A girl’s bra is shown as it is implied the couple strips down and is starting to have sex, but he stops suddenly and leaves; a romp in pajamas leads to him accidentally touching her chest; implied sex with roadies; a marriage is consummated though nothing is shown; a song and juke-joint dancing are sexual
Adult situations: Incest and bigamy are the big ones, but there is also mild drug use, smoking, and drinking
Takeaway: Morality aside, this film crackles with energy because of Quaid and Ryder and Lee’s music

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