One of the most startling sights and sounds in all American popular music was the young Jerry Lee Lewis, the self-taught country howler and piano virtuoso from Ferriday, La.: blond waves flopping and flying as he savagely blistered the keys, leaped onto his bench or sent it flying and screamed out the lyrics to sexual anthems like “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On"--sometimes capping off the astonishing performance by throwing a lighted match into his piano and setting it ablaze.
In “Great Balls of Fire” (citywide) director-writer Jim McBride and producer Adam Fields try to reincarnate that fine frenzy by portraying the pivotal two years (1956-1958) of Lewis’ life. This was the time when the self-dubbed “Killer” became known as the devil’s rockin’ emissary, the baddest of pop music’s bad boys; when, in rapid succession, he shot to world stardom and then, through scandal and censorship, came crashing down.
But McBride and Fields, unlike Lewis himself, or his cousin and childhood friend, TV evangelist Jimmie Lee Swaggart (Alec Baldwin), don’t seem to believe very strongly in the devil’s power, the war between heaven and hell. They’ve made a cartoon of Lewis’ history, a musical comedy of his dizzying, anguished, half-crazed rise and fall. They’ve bleached some of the danger out of his music, most of darkness out of his soul.
That doesn’t mean they haven’t made a good movie. “Great Balls of Fire” would be an entertaining evening even if it preserved nothing more than Lewis’ songs--rerecorded by Lewis with all the soul and groin-stirring fury that he has preserved during three decades.
It also has an often-dazzling comic impersonation of Lewis by Dennis Quaid, a goofy ballet of awesomely confident struts and brags. It has the late Trey Wilson as Sun’s Sam Phillips, mixing red-dirt strength with gentle satire. And it has Wynona Ryder’s delicate portrait of Lewis’ 13-year-old bride (and second cousin) Myra Gale Brown, a performance that suggests less innocence despoiled than a sturdy little kid thrust unknowingly into the inferno.
The movie makers probably aren’t trying for anything deeper. They’ve used the actual events of Lewis’ life, mostly drawn from Myra’s co-written memoir: his meteoric rise, the censorship by radio programmers and bookers after the child-bride scandal. They’ve recreated the surface of things conscientiously. Even some of the least likely events in this movie, such as Elvis Presley’s wraith-like appearance on induction eve to cede his crown to Lewis, or the gun-waving assault on Sun Studio by Myra’s infuriated father (and Lewis’ bassist) J. W. Brown (John Doe of the rock band X), come straight from Myra’s book.
They have toned down Lewis’ Homeric drinking and drug-abuse, possibly on the curious rationale that it would be a bad example for youth--as if the rest of his offstage behavior isn’t. But they’re less fudging facts than sugaring them over, candy-coating the movie with a ‘50s musical-comedy sheen. One scene, a double frame of Jerry Lee and Myra on the phone, with her parents, on either side, admonishing in unison, might have popped out of Stanley Donen in his MGM days.
The performances are dances, too: as in McBride’s “Big Easy,” they suggest choreography. As Bogey and Bacall expressed their passion by lighting cigarettes, Jerry Lee and Myra express theirs by popping bubble gum and twirling the threads. When Lewis drives his car past the local high school or civil rights protest march, the kids, the marchers, even the cops, rock with him in unison. (Later, they give him a universal “shame on you” high sign.) The events are mostly factual, but what determines our reactions is this tone: a bright, distancing device that celebrates Lewis’ talent while it softens his demonic spontaneity.
McBride leaves out something important. He doesn’t evade the racial dichotomy in Lewis’ culture. We see the singer symbolically joining rock’s black and white hands on his piano, in a duet with the salty old blues pianist Booker T. Laury. But, except for the opening scene, when little Jerry and Jimmy Lee race across the tracks to kibitz at a smoky all-black roadhouse, the movie avoids the hard times of the Lewises, so poor they had to mortgage their home to give their child-prodigy an upright piano. It’s a crucial gap: Lewis’ “flaw” stems partially from the fact that he was a poor boy made suddenly rich.
That’s the irony of the famous mannerisms that Quaid recreates with such wizardly accuracy: the gestures of a parodied prince. They suggest a teen-age kid trying to be regal, project his “specialness.” And it’s also the irony of the good-and-evil battle that Swaggart wages with Lewis. The evangelist argues for sobriety and sexual reason, but also for propriety, the middle-class mores that princely Lewis, with his peasant background, tramples on.
Another irony: The 21-year-old Lewis is being played by an actor in his mid-30s and dubbed by the 53-year-old “Killer himself.” Isn’t the fire largely gone? Strangely, it isn’t. The stand-up rockers still have ecstatic force and Lewis does a tear-jerker like “That Lucky Old Sun” as rarely before: with the power Ray Charles also gives it, a golden melancholy seeping through the hard edges, the piano trills dropping like a weary, heart-torn rainfall.
In life, Lewis’ main charm was that he believed himself to be dancing on hell’s mouth, believed rock ‘n’ roll was the devil’s music--and, damn it, played and lived it anyway. But, in life and even in “Great Balls of Fire” (MPAA rated PG-13), it’s that devil’s music that saves his soul, sung and played with a power that might make angels boogie.
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