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Country Goes to the Movies, part VI: Great Balls of Fire

By Robert Loy, October 1997

In "Great Balls of Fire," Dennis Quaid keeps ranting "I have a God-given talent, " but it certainly isn't for acting, at least not in this 1989 Looney Tunes biopic of the Cradle-Robber - I mean the Killer.

It's not for lip-synching either, and his speaking voice as Jerry Lee is high-camp cartoonish, sort of a twangier Tennessee Tuxedo.

The movie opens with two little boy cousins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart (yes, that Jimmy Swaggart), sneaking off to Chocolate Town to hear some of that Devil's music - well, Jerry's there to hear the music, Swaggart is picturing the plump diva as a Penthouse centerfold.

Two seconds later, Jerry Lee is all grown and playing Satan's songs himself. Winona Ryder plays his 13-year-old cousin Myra. (And already this movie is playing fast and loose with the truth; Winona might understandably tempt a cousin to sin, but I've seen video of the real Myra, and she was a vacant-eyed, gum-chewing moron, barely in her teens and already slatternly.) (Sorry, Killer, don't hurt me.)

Cousin Jimmy (Alec Baldwin) Swaggart wants Jerry Lee to use his talent in church. But Jerry's signed on with Sun Records and getting ready to release a song he stole from the Chocolate Town community - "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On." Sam Phillips is reluctant to release it, as he thinks it's too suggestive. (Wait till he hears the title tune.)

Over Phillips's objections, they play "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" at the redneck dive they're booked in, and it serves as a sort of Sermon on the Mount - or sermon behind the chicken wire. People put down their broken beer bottles and peace breaks out. (You wouldn't think the Devil's music would have that effect on folks.)

Next thing you know Lewis is on the Steve Allen show and the whole country goes wild. We see all kinds of 1950s Americans - including - I'm not making this up - Ward and June Cleaver - watching the Killer on TV. Everybody loves him except Swaggart who's worried about his cousin's soul and Elvis who's worried about his own bankroll.

Myra is a little jealous of all the women kissing him, but they're all past puberty so Jerry Lee's not interested. To reassure her he takes her out to the lake and makes out with - all right, molests - her.The Killer hasn't forgotten his other cousin either. Swaggart gets down on his knees and praises Jesus when Jerry Lee gives him brand a new car with some of the profits from Beelzebub's bebop. (Swaggart is probably thinking he can really pick up a passel of prostitutes now.)

Myra's father Jay, Jerry's cousin and bass player, tells Jerry Lee you've got to pick your woman young. (This is called preaching to the choir.) "You've got to train 'em like you would a bird dog," Jay says, but all his wife, Lois, fetches is his money.

The movie loses whatever believability it might have had every time Jerry Lee drives through town. "Grease" style dance numbers break out everywhere he goes - at the high school, the diner, even the integrationists and the federal marshals start be-bopping when the Killer cruises by.

Myra's been threatened with boarding school, so Jerry Lee adds kidnap to his list of crimes and carries Myra across the Mississippi line and weds her, forgetting that he never got around to divorcing wife number two. So, not only is he an incestuous pervert, he's a bigamist as well.

Next morning he drives his bride back to the eighth grade. Both of them are too chicken to tell Jay but he figures it out when he finds rice in Jerry Lee's pockets. He knows the Killer never ate anything that healthy.

There's another ridiculous production number as Myra shops for furnishings - dancing and flinging cash all over the department store. Even their first night as man and wife is a dance - the minute waltz. J.L. is P.O.ed because Myra "don't move like no virgin."But that's his own fault. Myra felt those moves in the Lewis's Luciferian lyrics.

With Elvis's blessing ("Just take it," he says, "just take the whole thing," meaning the fame, the fortune, the crown as the king of Rock and roll.) Lewis sets off for a tour of England, and Myra comes along. She has to - she's too little to stay by herself without a baby-sitter.

A reporter contemptuous of the "gum-chewing bumpkin" breaks the story about his child bride and - this was the days before the weekly royal scandals inured them somewhat - England is scandalized.

They boo and heckle him at his concerts. Someone even pushes a baby stroller out on stage, whereupon Lewis really loses his cool - as if he ever had any. Lewis tells England it can kiss his ass, but England kicks it out of the country instead.

Things aren't much better at home. The kids and the integrationists no longer dance when he drives by, they rub their fingers at him in the tsk-tsk-shame-on-you gesture. His booking fee has dropped from $10,000 a night to $250 - when he can get a booking.

And it goes rapidly downhill from there. The Killer is drinking, he's popping pills, he's beating and cheating on the woman - girl - he loves. Meanwhile Sam and Sun are looking for a new king.

If this was a movie like "A Star is Born" Jerry Lee would end up dead and Myra would end up famous - probably as a daytime TV talk show hostess. But it's not a movie (not much of one anyway), and it ends with the Killer supposedly back on top (more playing with the truth), and proud father of little Steve Allen Lewis (born with nerdy black glasses and his own late-night TV show).

The movie closes with these words: "Jerry Lee Lewis is playing his heart out somewhere in America tonight."

Unless of course he's in jail or rehab again.

NEXT: It was the biggest selling song of the 1970s, and now it's a hit for LeAnn Rimes. But the movie's been all but forgotten. Find out why when "Take This Movie and Shove it" looks at "You Light Up My Life."