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.