Films with exclamation marks in their title are generally to be approached with caution, whether its ABBA musical Mamma Mia! or Stallone comedy Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire! is no exception.
Most biopics suffer from trying to squeeze an entire life into a couple of hours. This 1989 music movie avoids this problem by focusing on one element of The Killer’s life; his career-wrecking marriage to his 13-year-old cousin Myra. Unfortunately, the mishandling of this controversial chapter causes more problems than it solves.
Director Jim McBride presents the relationship between Jerry Lee (Dennis Quaid) and Myra (Winona Ryder) as a cute, misunderstood romance – a misjudged decision given that she’s literally a child, barely old enough to watch The Hobbit.
In the 1950s, such a young bride wasn’t so uncommon in the American south – but when the couple arrive in London, they’re hounded out of the country. At first they lie about Myra’s age and pretend she’s 15, thinking this will diffuse the situation. It doesn’t.
And when the press learn that she’s actually 13 and his cousin, there’s public uproar. We Brits are such prudes, opposing child marriage.
Myra protests that the pair are “second cousins, twice removed!” This is strange, given that a) they’re not – they’re first cousins, once removed, and b) “removed” means you’re different generations, so I wouldn’t go around shouting about it.
The reason for the mistake is unclear. Is Myra wrong? That would be very odd. Is the screenplay wrong? It would be pretty stupid for such an obvious mistake to slip through. So is the film just trying to pull the wool over our eyes? That would be quite insulting, based on the assumption that the audience are too dumb to notice.
Jerry Lee never seems to understand that marrying someone so young is inappropriate – and neither does the film, which approaches the controversial subject with misplaced joviality. And as for the sex scene – goodness gracious.
The casting of the 18-year-old Ryder helps gloss over the matter, making the film feel sanitised – something a rock ‘n’ roll movie should never be.
That’s not to fault Ryder, who’s never less than brilliant. Even though I can’t hear her name without singing it in my head to the tune of the Grateful Dead’s I Know You Rider. “Winona Ryder, gonna miss me when I’m gone…”
Quaid is electrifying as rock ‘n’ roll’s original wild man, though he looks way more like a blonde Benedict Cumberbatch than Jerry Lee Lewis. But when he hammers that piano, it’s like watching The Killer himself.
Apparently Quaid practiced the piano 12 hours a day for a year, and Lewis himself helped to teach him. He nails the pianist’s lightning-fast style – standing up and kicking the piano stool across the stage behind him, flicking his blonde hair and rolling his fingers up and down the keys, jumping on the piano and being very, very loud.
But McBride insists on showing us a Hollywood version of Jerry Lee Lewis, depicting his rude arrogance as cocky self-confidence. He skirts around the darker aspects of Jerry Lee’s character, over-simplifying his relationship with religion.
A more assured film might have explored the idea that the singer’s self-destructive behaviour was caused by the clash of his religious upbringing and his “devil music”, which was banned by some radio stations that feared its sex-fuelled ungodliness. He’s the original rock star, adored by teens and feared by parents – actually, they may have had a point.
Weirdly, Lewis’ religious opponents were more worried about his music than his marrying a child, but there you go.
His spiritual struggle was intensified by his preacher cousin Jimmy Swaggart, nicely played by Alec Baldwin. Swaggart later became a televangelist, with his own share of controversy – he was caught in the company of a prostitute in 1988. And then again in 1991.
Meanwhile, Lewis’ bass player, cousin and father-in-law are all well played by John Doe. Because they’re the same person.
Interestingly, Lewis’ drummer is played by cult musician Mojo Nixon. Well, it’s interesting to me anyway. Not least because the same year, Winona Ryder appeared in his music video for the song Debbie Gibson is Pregnant with My Two-Headed Love Child.
There are some great scenes in Great Balls of Fire!, including the sequence where Lewis sets fire to his piano on stage, before sauntering past Chuck Berry with the line: “Follow that, killer!” It’s in these musical scenes that the movie really rock ‘n’ rolls, thanks to Lewis’ colourful suits, wild performances and killer songs – all re-recorded by Jerry Lee himself.
“You take a white right hand and a black left hand, and what do you got? Son, you got rock ‘n’ roll.” The film captures the primal energy of early rock ‘n’ roll – and the performance scenes leave you breathless-ahhh.
These scenes remind us why this unpleasant individual is musically so important, shaping rock ‘n’ roll with an animalistic energy never before seen – he makes Elvis look like One Direction. We’re quite capable of separating the art from the artist, but the film doesn’t trust us to do so. It smooths off his rough edges and sprinkles him with glitter – and makes him much less interesting in the process.
Now 79 years old, Jerry Lee Lewis has enough crazy stories to make a much better film. My favourite is when he was arrested outside Elvis’ Graceland residence for waving a gun and demanding to see “The King”. That’s one of many unfortunate omissions from this watered-down biopic, described as “phoney” by Murray Silver, co-author of Myra’s autobiography on which the film is based.
The film glosses over the tragic nature of the musician’s life – two of his children have died, not to mention a handful of his wives. And like last year’s James Brown biopic Get On Up, the film breezes past the subject’s abusive behaviour.
Lewis’ story deserves a much bolder treatment – probably starring a blonde Benedict Cumberbatch. Only a brutally honest account would befit this force of nature, who’s as controversial as he is influential – a rock ‘n’ roll rebel with more wives than Henry VIII.
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