The Flickers: Great Balls of Fire!

Great Balls of Fire! (1989)

Starring Dennis Quaid, Winona Ryder, Alec Baldwin, John Doe, Lisa Blount, Trey Wilson, Stephen Tobolowsky, Mojo Nixon, Jimmie Vaughan, Lisa Jane Persky, Steve Allen and Michael St. Gerard. Directed by Jim McBride. From Orion Pictures.

All images © Orion Pictures

You can’t tell Jerry Lee Lewis (Quaid) nothing. A wild man at heart, Jerry resists the urgings of his cousin, Jimmy Swaggart (Baldwin) to serve the Lord as a preacher and becomes a rock & roll star for Sam Phillips’ (Wilson) Sun Records. His bassist and cousin, J.W. (Doe) and J.W.’s wife, Lois (Blount), take Lewis into their home where Jerry falls for their daughter, young Myra (Ryder). Against all conventions and warnings, Jerry and Myra marry. It’s a union that no one can abide, least of all the English when Jerry tours the UK. The scandal derails the Killer’s career and he and Myra try to navigate their unconventional relationship.

Some of my earliest memories involve music, specifically oldies. One of the very first albums I ever owned was Fonzie’s Favorites, a collection of rock & roll that included “Great Balls of Fire”. So from as far back as I can remember, I’ve known of the Killer. As a teenager, I began pursuing film, renting many tapes from my local Jumbo Video. One of the actors I began to enjoy was Dennis Quaid; mostly because of The Big Easy (1986), one of my Top 25 favourite films. When I caught wind of the biopic that paired two guys I loved, I was excited. I went to the theatre three times to see Great Balls of Fire! and that represented the first time I went to the movies multiple times to see the same picture.

Dennis Quaid as Jerry Lee Lewis.

Great Balls of Fire! tells the story that many are familiar with, the story of Jerry Lee Lewis and his “child bride”. It is based on the book of the same name by Myra Lewis and Murray Silver that was published in 1982. Director and screenwriter Jim McBride has frankly had an underwhelming career. However, his first film, 1967’s David Holzman’s Diary, caused McBride to be included – some 45 years later – in a list in the New Yorker of the “greatest living narrative filmmakers”. I don’t get it though as he has done nothing else of note to anyone except Yours Truly. In addition to our film, Jim had directed The Big Easy three years previous. Before that, he had helmed the adaptation of Breathless that starred Richard Gere. But other than that – nothing.

As a teenager, Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin and Dennis Quaid emerged as my three favourite modern day actors. In the case of Quaid, I’ve talked about my love for The Big Easy. By the time he was cast as the Killer, Dennis was finally enjoying popularity after working in the business for ten years. 1987 had begun a run of notable and successful films for Quaid including Innerspace and the remake of D.O.A., in which Dennis would star alongside Meg Ryan who would become Mrs. Quaid on Valentine’s Day, 1991. Quaid then became just as popular as one half of a celebrity couple as he was as an actor.

Jerry burning it up.

Quaid and Jerry Lee Lewis connected during the filming of this biopic. Quaid, an accomplished musician, had wanted to sing and play for himself but the Killer was never going to let that happen; the film is better for it. Quaid absorbed Jerry’s personality to the extent that the two would banter back and forth on set, Dennis even heckling Jerry’s reckless living, saying that the more Lewis caroused and carried on, the more Quaid would have to work with. Portraying Jerry Lee Lewis was courageous on Dennis Quaid’s part and he handles the role…interestingly. More on that later. Quaid would go on to enjoy a successful career in Hollywood becoming a dependable leading man and a welcomed face in any role. Later highlights include a turn as Doc Holliday in Kevin Costner’s 1994 epic Wyatt Earp and the Oscar-winning Traffic (2000). Handy with the remakes, Quaid can add to D.O.A. The Parent Trap, The Alamo, Flight of the Phoenix and Footloose to his resumé. Dennis has been able to transition from leading man to ensemble player.

Winona Ryder was 17 when she played 13-year-old Myra Gale. She had recently entered the spotlight with her appearances in Beetlejuice (1988) and Heathers (1989). Our film was only her sixth in her fourth year of filmmaking. She does very well as Myra, embodying her youth, innocence and vitality. Her momentum continued the following year with Edward Scissorhands, Mermaids and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (a film I also went to see multiple times; was it something about Winona?). She would go on to a successful and highly visible film career appearing in, among others; Reality Bites (1984), Alien Resurrection (1997), Star Trek (2009) and Black Swan (2010). She’s been nominated for Oscars twice, in consecutive years, for The Age of Innocence (1994) and Little Women (1995). I like Winona Ryder. Not only is she attractive but I think she is a good actress; a littler Michelle Pfeiffer, maybe. So, two notable faces headline our cast but many of the lesser roles are filled by engaging players.

Three musicians are among the cast and play members of Jerry’s band. John Doe does extra heavy lifting as J.W. Brown, Jerry’s cousin and Myra’s father. Doe is an L.A. punk music legend, having co-founded the band X. He’s also appeared in a handful of films; Road House (1989), The Outsiders (1983) and Brokedown Palace (1999) among them. He does well, especially when he gets homicidal towards Jerry. Stephen Tobolowsky plays Jud Phillips. He also somehow shows up in some of my absolute favourite films including Bird on a Wire (1990), The Grifters (1990), Basic Instinct (1992), Sneakers (1992), Bossa Nova (2000) and Memento (2000). Trey Wilson does well as Sam Phillips but unfortunately this man with the great name died of a cerebral haemorrhage at the young age of 40, before Great Balls of Fire! was released. Wilson’s passing is noted in the film’s closing credits.

It started for Alec Baldwin and I with 1990’s Miami Blues, forever my favourite film of his. Baldwin arrived in 1988, appearing in five films released that year, all notable. The directors of these films? No slouches; John Hughes, Tim Burton, Jonathan Demme, Mike Nichols, Oliver Stone. Great Balls of Fire! continued this run of films that at the very least were popular. The following year was Alec’s break-out year. In addition to the gritty Miami Blues, he became the first man to portray Jack Ryan on the big screen in John McTiernan’s blockbuster The Hunt for Red October. While I’ve still never seen that film, it was at this point that I began to actively follow Baldwin’s career. After closing ’90 working with Woody Allen, Baldwin began his name-above-the-titles run with The Marrying Man – with his soon-to-be-wife, Kim Basinger and which I (and few others) saw in the theatre – and the romantic comedy Prelude to a Kiss, with Meg Ryan. 1992 closed with what perhaps remains his greatest performance as Blake in David Mamet’s stellar ensemble piece Glengarry Glen Ross; “Always be closing”.

Alec Baldwin as Jimmy Lee Swaggart, Jerry’s cousin.

At this point, I was watching everything he was in including his follow-up Malice, an excellent and underrated neo-noir with Nicole Kidman, his remake of The Getaway with wifey Kim and Michael Madsen, his fun turn as Lamont Cranston in the extravagant The Shadow, the interesting and hard-to-pronounce The Juror with Demi Moore, Heaven’s Prisoners – I scored the massive cardboard display for this film from my local video store; it took up a large swath of my small apartment – and the period piece The Ghosts of Mississippi for which James Woods was nominated for an Oscar. Later came The Edge with Anthony Hopkins and Mercury Rising – a dream pairing for me of Alec with Bruce Willis – and then the timely Thomas and the Magic Railroad which came along just as I somehow found myself with small children. Baldwin scored his lone Academy Award nomination to date for his work in the 2003 casino drama The Cooler, starring William H. Macy and – notably for me – Ron Livingston of Swingers. Alec then cemented himself in my book with one of my favourite TV shows of the modern era and perhaps the last television show I will ever watch as it is being produced, Tina Fey’s 30 Rock. Alec Baldwin, then, has forged a career in which he has appeared in scores of notable and successful films. He has also become something of a polarizing figure in his personal life but the more I look at his CV, the more I am impressed with his career. Still one of my guys, though I have to focus more on the actor than the man.

Pretty decor, pretty sweater and pretty Lisa Blount.

Lisa Blount is a knockout as Myra’s mom, Lois. Blount was an actress of little note who had been nominated for a Golden Globe for her work in An Officer and a Gentleman (1982). I know her from an episode of one of my three favourite television shows, Moonlighting. While she forged no significant career as an actress, she did gain notices in 2005’s Chrystal, a film she made with Billy Bob Thornton and her husband, actor, writer, director and producer Ray McKinnon, and for the short film The Accountant. Blount and her husband won the Best Short Subject Academy Award in 2001 for this film they made with actor/producer Walter Goggins (of the Tarantinoverse). Blount suffered from Immune thrombocytopenic purpura, a condition of the blood that contributed to her premature death at 53 in 2010. Sadly, her mother discovered her after she had been dead for two days. In clever casting, musicians Jimmie Vaughan and Mojo Nixon portray members of Jerry’s band and Lisa Jane Persky shows up as an ardent fan of Jerry’s who snips off a lock of his hair. Persky – also from When Harry Met Sally… – was in The Big Easy with Quaid. And we’ll talk about this more later but Michael St. Gerard portrays Elvis Presley. St. Gerard looked so much like Presley that he played him in the 1990 Elvis mini-series, this and another film and an episode of Quantum Leap. He stands out in my world for his portrayal of an acting teacher during the second season of Beverly Hills, 90210. What his character’s name was on that show I couldn’t tell you; I always referred to him as “the King teacher”. Not long for acting, St. Gerard is now a pastor working with inner-city kids in Harlem. Points for Michael St. Gerard. Watch for Steve Allen playing his younger self hosting his eponymous television variety show.

Jerry with his band. From left; Jimmie Vaughan, Mojo Nixon and John Doe. Musicians all, on screen and otherwise.
Recreating Jerry’s appearance on The Steve Allen Show with Steve himself. Jerry named his son Steve Allen Lewis.

Myra Brown – now Myra Gale Williams – was unhappy with how the book Great Balls of Fire! turned out because of what co-writer Murray Silver did to it. Silver, in turn, was disappointed with the filmed version because of what Jim McBride did to it. Silver called it “phoney” and McBride countered by saying that he didn’t set out to make a documentary and he used the book only as a “jumping off point”. Whatever. Such is Hollywood. The film met with moderate success though it lost money. But there’s three things we need to understand about this movie.

Myra and Jerry watch the late show.

The first thing is perhaps the least important but bears noting. I talked in a previous post about Jerry’s self-made obsessive competition with Elvis Presley. This is depicted in the film in scenes that come from the book, written by Myra. Therefore, their origins must have came from the mouth of Jerry Lee Lewis to the ears of his impressionable young wife and were then related to the co-author of the book, Silver. One scene in particular cannot possibly have its basis in fact. It is late at night in Memphis. Lewis is at the piano in the darkened studios of Sun’s Memphis Recording Service. He is startled by a noise at the door. It is Presley in his Army uniform and with his duffel bag on his back. Presley and Jerry look at each other. Disconsolately, Presley mutters “Go on, take it. Take the whole thing” and the King of Rock & Roll torch is passed to the Killer. Even as a teenager viewing this in the theatre I scoffed. While King was privately concerned about the perpetuation of his career as he entered the service, the idea that he bowed to Jerry in this way is absurd. It almost single-handedly sinks the integrity of the whole picture. But it may fit within the confines of this movie. Which brings me to my second point.

The movie is saved in part by this element which has to do with the film’s general tenor and an understanding of Quaid’s depiction of Lewis. Expectations have killed many a great film and if you are going into this one looking for a dramatic rock & roll movie about a dynamic performer and his controversial private life, that is not what you’re going to get. Not really. A recent viewing allowed me to see this movie for what I think it is; a fun, tongue-in-cheek, self-aware picture. I think you need to watch it more as a Grease-type musical, half-a-send-up of the Fifties aesthetic. Consider particularly the “High School Confidential” number. As the song plays, Jerry drops Myra off at school. The kids get excited and their choreographed dancing gives you a definite indication of what the film is after and how you should view it. Speaking of choreography, there’s a cute bit of synchronized head-nodding between Jerry and Myra in one scene that also helps make my point; it’s like a wink at the audience.

A united – and synchronized – front.

And I’ve so often heard a negative spin put on Dennis Quaid’s performance. As a youth who loved Jerry Lee Lewis and Dennis Quaid, I wouldn’t hear of such criticisms and even told myself I didn’t see what people were talking about. However, taken from a performance angle, Dennis does play it over-the-top. While this may mesh with what I’ve just described as a film that is out for kicks and doesn’t take itself too seriously, it is still obvious and jarring. Quaid employs vigorous head movements, bubble-gum-popping smirks, smouldering eyes and an exaggerated akimbo-armed strut. His bugged-out eyes when he sings, etc. But here’s the way I’ve come to look at it. It was a big ask, portraying Jerry Lee Lewis. This can be said of many larger-than-life figures in entertainment history. Does Quaid overdo it? Yes – but not by much. I think we can assume that Jerry is really like that. It still is hard to watch sometimes but understanding this may make it easier. I’ve found it more difficult, actually, watching Lewis – who praised Quaid’s performance – himself be interviewed. He is a colourful, quirky, eccentric, personality. To have played him any other way would simply have been false.

The wedding is handled comically, particularly by Ryder who nails the deer-in-the-headlights look.

And thirdly, I’ve come to understand that the most significant thing about this film – it’s most enduring contribution – is its soundtrack. I’ve even through the years found it hard to believe. Hard to believe that at 53, Jerry Lee Lewis never, ever sounded better. I’ve often thought much had to do with the musical setting and production provided by legendary producer T-Bone Burnett but listening to the recordings tells a different and more compelling story. T-Bone had tools available to him that Sam Phillips could only dream of but state-of-the-art recording practices still can’t make someone who hasn’t got it sound like they do.

My copies of the excellent soundtrack which is extremely hard to find.

The music sparkles. Jerry’s solo on the opening title track is outstanding. His vocal for “High School Confidential” mixes his southern drawl with the cocky utterances of someone half his age, something that glows throughout the record. “I’m on Fire” literally blazes and is aided by the same vocal treatment as the previous tune and for the same reasons. “Wild One” stands up to the high standards laid down here. With “That Lucky Old Sun”, you get something different. A virtuoso piano performance from someone who made his name as a pounder of the keys and a vocal through which permeates a life hard-lived. Here Jerry sounds almost apologetic or at least he sounds like he’s asking for a bit of mercy, something in contrast to the obstinate way he’s lived his life. The recording is a sonic marvel. This excellent album is fleshed out with a few tunes from other artists including the excellent “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats. This 1951 track that is often considered the first rock & roll song is relevant here as it was originally recorded by Sam Phillips at Memphis Recording Service in Memphis. And I do believe it is played while, on-screen, Jerry buys a pair of Oldsmobile 88’s.

“Mr. Lewis, is it true that you’re married to this…girl?”

In addition to the great music, Great Balls of Fire! is an aesthetically pleasing film. The producers have done well with the settings and the costume design is spot on. Overall, the film has a genuine Fifties look. Interesting to note that producers received permission from Elvis Presley Enterprises to actually show Graceland in the film; something you don’t see often. Also, assembled here is a stellar cast. No one seems to really miss their marks and every one does well with the camp of the material. The casting of the always stylish Jimmie Vaughan is particularly inspired and I thought that he was a great person to pair with Jerry in the studio for the soundtrack. But interestingly, this legendary guitarist was hired for his acting and does not play on the soundtrack.

At the heart of this book and movie, though, is a sad story. Young Myra Gale was caught up in a whirlwind and was certainly not equipped to deal with the life she was thrust into. The film wastes little time dealing with the guilt she felt over Jerry’s career downturn but there is a telling scene in which Myra leaves her childhood home to go and live with Jerry as his wife. Mother and daughter hug and cry and you can imagine their feelings. So much Lois Brown would have liked to share with her daughter and so much she never got to teach her and there was no time for any preparatory counsel. But the way they’re depicted here, Jerry and Myra make a good pair – right down to the bubble gum they’re both chawing on. Somehow this makes them seem not so far apart in age.

And Jerry Lee Lewis may have been a jerk. But – as we see in the scene in which he is asked to write a letter of apology to the fans for publication in Billboard magazine – he was uncompromising and could not be swayed from his path; no matter how reckless he was or how ill-fated that path appeared. You’ll get a general telling of the true story from Great Balls of Fire! and you’ll get a fun film that looks and sounds sensational.

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