Great Balls of Fire Review

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From childhood inspiration to early demise, we follow Lewis' (Quaid) musical life as it rises out of the Louisiana haze, only to be thrown back again when his marriage to thirteen-year old Myra (Ryder) is discovered.


Ferriday, Louisiana, 1944: two little white boys scamper across the tracks to the black part of town and press their noses up against the window of a club wherein a riotous assembly is getting down to some delightfully raucous barrelhouse blues. “Come on, let’s get out of here,” pipes young Jimmy Swaggart, the future preacher. “I think it’s the Devil’s music!” “Yeah!” agrees his cousin — and doesn’t budge an inch. Flash forward 12 years: a pair of hands vamps the piano with nonchalant violence, concluding with a chorus of the gospel evergreen How Great Thou Art. Except the way Jerry Lee Lewis (for it is he) sings it, it’s How Great I Am. . .

It’s a good start, but just a touch misleading. That Jerry Lee’s incandescently brief hit-making career burned all the brighter because his brand of rock ‘n’ roll was all too demonically inspired is a point well made throughout Great Balls Of Fire. But that the self-styled Killer believed it himself, and therefore also in his own inevitable damnation, is only lightly skimmed over. A pity, because it’s a depth the film needs despite its avowed intention to portray the legend of Jerry Lee Lewis, rather than stick to the letter of the story.

Reuniting The Big Easy’s director, Jim McBride, with its star, Dennis Quaid, Great Balls Of Fire is a tale of American can-do individualism, suffused with a golden glow reminiscent of Coppola’s Tucker. Likewise, Quaid’s performance — for all his authenticating “hanging out” with the Killer during production — is a gleeful melange of mad bravado and bull-headed ignorance about the ways of the world: Jack Nicholson as the Joker in Batman has a rival for Ham of the Year. Great Balls is cartoonish, a style in keeping with the heightened period camp of the movie as a whole, where the pinks are shocking, telephone conversations are split-screened like in Pillow Talk, crowds of extras fall into uninhibited jiving whenever that piano starts pumping and every Londoner wears a Gannex raincoat.

Indeed, the rollicking energy of the proceedings dulls the edge of the human tragedy, of how Jerry Lee’s superstardom was nipped in the bud when the world discovered his bride was but 13 years old. As young Myra Gale Lewis, Winona Ryder is cute yet spontaneous and subtle. As her father, John Doe of the rock band X, and the late Trey Wilson as Sun Records’ Sam Phillips also merit mention in despatches.

In striking contrast with Clint Eastwood’s penetrating and sombre Bird, Great Balls Of Fire is good Saturday night fun. That both movies turned belly-up at the box-office in America must, however, cast doubts on musical biopics for the time being at least.

A loud, careering thunderbolt of a bipoic, that leaves behind an imprint of the myth, if not enough of the man.