Great Balls of Fire! (1989)

My grandfather drove a big El Camino that was painted with black primer and held together with hope and Big Red chewing gum. Whenever I’d ride with him, he’d generally be blasting an 8-track of “The Killer,” often pulling over and yelling at me to pay attention, telling me that no one could play the piano like Jerry Lee.

I kept that in mind while watching this movie, which is based on his biography by child bride Myra Lewis and Murray M. Silver Jr.

Directed by Jim McBride (who also made the American version of Breathless with Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 writer L. M. Kit Carson), this is a great way to learn just why Lewis was so important to men like my grandpa. (McBride also worked with Dennis Quaid on The Big Easy; he also directed the cable rock ‘n’ roll bio-flick Meatloaf: To Hell and Back.)

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Would Jerry Lee have supplanted the King if he couldn’t keep his hands off his thirteen-year-old first cousin? This movie never really tries to answer this, instead showing us the fervor that The Killer* was someone who wasn’t above setting his piano ablaze to get a reaction. Dennis Quaid, well, kills it in this movie, absolutely inhabiting the soul of Jerry Lee on screen.

Silver, who co-wrote the book, claimed that the film was phony, while McBride said that he didn’t care about the facts. So while no one liked the film, nearly everyone liked Quaid in the lead. As for The Killer, he hated the book, so he wasn’t going to like the movie. Yet he did concede that Quaid “really pulled it off.**”

Winona Ryder is fine as Myra, but where the film shines is by placing real rock stars into unexpected roles, like John Doe — hey, the whole reason for this week on our site — as Myra’s put-upon pa J. W. Brown, Jimmie Vaughan as Roland Janes, Mojo Nixon as James Van Eaton and CBGB regular and New York Rocker writer Lisa Jane Persky as an early rival for Lewis’ affections. This movie also boasts Steve Allen as himself, Alec Baldwin as Lewis’ cousin Jimmy Swaggert, Nashville sound engineer David R. Ferguson as Jack Clement, the late Lisa Blount (Dead and BuriedCut and RunPrince of DarknessNeedful Things***) as Lois Brown and, of all people, Peter Cook as a British reporter.

*The official Lewis website states “Many people think it’s because of his rowdy reputation or because of how he knocked out audiences. The truth is that “killer” was a common slang term during Jerry Lee’s youth, and he would say goodbye to his friends by saying, “See ya later, killer.” This became his nickname before he had a performing career.” Or maybe he lived up to it later when he may or may not have killed his fifth wife, Shawn Stephens; definitely shot his bassist Butch Owens with a .357 accidentally and also showed up at the gates of Graceland with a loaded pistol on the dash, which sent him to jail eight months before Elvis died.

**To be fair, that’s really Lewis singing and playing the piano parts.

***Which also has the version of “Great Balls of Fire” that Jerry Lee re-recorded for this movie on its soundtrack.

 

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