Sunday, January 07, 2007


MEMPHIS MUSIC MOVIES: GREAT BALLS OF FIRE! (1989)
DIRECTOR: JIM MCBRIDE

Nick Tosches wrote an amazing biography--of a sort--of Jerry Lee Lewis called Helfire that cast Lewis' life in terms of a Faulknerian drama between good and evil and imagined in the strictest Pentecostal terms. If Jim McBride ever read it before making Great Balls Of Fire! he must have decided to take everything in the opposite direction. Balls' greatest debt belongs to Frank Tashlin, the animator-turned-director who best known for working with that other Jerry Lewis. Tashlin made cartoonish, candy-colored satires in the 1950s and his influence is all over this movie. There's a great scene that falls where most biopics would inset a montage of swirling newspapers and screaming fans to symbolize their subject's ascent to fame. Instead, Lewis, as played by Dennis Quaid, rides through town, cheered along the way by everyone from high school students, to courthouse protestors to cops. Everyone loves Jerry Lee! Later, the sequence is reversed, and all those one-time fans shun him. It's silly, but much of the movie treads the line between knowing camp and, well, just plain camp. In the end it doesn't work out, but it's a valiant effort that's better than most reviews would suggest.


McBride has tried to make a movie with all the cartoonish energy and outsized sexuality of a Jerry Lee Lewis song and sometime he gets there, largely thanks to a daring performance from Dennis Quaid, drawing his inspiration from Huckleberry Hound when he's not channeling Lewis. Here the Ferriday Fireball is played an unreflective bumpkin driven by the power of his music and torn between serving god (as per the wishes of cousin Jimmy Swaggart, played by Alec Baldwin) and playing rock and roll. But really he's not torn enough. Anyone who's ever heard the amazing conversation between Lewis and Sam Phillips before recording "Great Balls Of Fire"--in which Lewis frets over playing "the devil's music," Phillips replies that music can save souls and Lewis replies, "How can the devil save souls?... I have the devil in me. If I didn't I'd be a Christian"--knows Lewis was tormented by the things that gave him joy. But here the dark side's not dark enough and while Balls gets a lot of the energy that made Lewis a star, it can't go much deeper. It ends with Lewis storming out of church, choosing independence over conformity. That was one of the choices he had to make, but far from the only one. McBride made Balls with Lewis' cooperation. (He recorded his songs for Quaid to lip synch.) The portrait of an innocent undone by stuffy '50s morality must have made it an easy sell.


Still, there's plenty to like here. Quaid's romance of his 13-year-old cousin (a giggly Winona Ryder who, in another Tashlin-esque sequence furnishes their new home by going to a store and literally throwing money around) is played for creepy, funny laughs. ("You're all woman to Jerry Lee!") The production design is theme park-perfect and there's a great sequence in which Sam Phillips listens to Lewis' recording of "Crazy Arms," likes it, presses it, runs it down to Dewey Phillips at WHBQ, and has the malt girls swooning before the night is through. The city was open that way then and the world was ready to listen.

3 comments:

Steve said...

Hi,

I believe I had read of the Sun recording session you mention - where Sam Phillips and Jerry Lee Lewis were having a religious discussion, before he rips into a version of 'Great Balls of Fire'. I thought it was released on LP.

Do you know the title of this recording? Sorry I don't have more information.

I know part of it is available on 'A Half Century of Hits' (Time-Life) -- "Jerry Lee Lewis and Sam Phillips: Religious Discussion"

I think more of it is on Bear Family's 8 CD 'Jerry Lee Lewis - Complete Sun Recordings' or maybe might have even been on a small bootleg label (?)

Thanks for any help!

olaf675 said...

You can get this track from eMusic.com.

It is on a Sun compilation called 'Sun Spots, vol. 2: Oddities and Obscurities'.

Greil Marcus' book "Mystery Train" has a transcript of it (as does Nick Tosches biography 'Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story') and states that it was on a 1973(?) Dutch bootleg called 'Good Rocking Tonight' (Bopcat LP-100). That LP included session recordings and studio chatter of Elvis Presley, Billy Lee Riley, Warren Smith and Jerry Lee Lewis. I had hoped to find that a long time ago, but may finally just get the track from eMusic. It says after the religious discussion that Jerry Lee Lewis performed a furious version of 'Great Balls of Fire' that was used in the 1957 movie 'Jamboree' (aka 'Disc Jockey Jamboree'), though the Bear Family box set CD implies that an earliest of three versions of the song (before the religious discussion) was for that movie. This mediocre movie (which I haven't seen, but hope to) is currently available on a Warner Home Video DVD.

You can read more about 'Good Rocking Tonight' (Bopcat LP-100) from the book "Bootleg: The Secret History of the Other Recording Industry" by Clinton Heylin.

I don't believe this furious version is available at eMusic.com, but is undoubtedly on the Bear Family box set which has three versions, plus other discussion. You can hear a snippet on allmusic.com of all three versions on allmusic.com

Some additional background is here
http://www.npr.org/ramfiles/me/20001103.me.15.rmm

olaf675 said...

Here is an individual's review of the 1973 Dutch bootleg 'Good Rocking Tonight' (Bopcat LP-100), complete with a cover photo!

I never thought I'd see something like that.