Great Balls of Fire! Jerry Lee Lewis biopic strikes wrong note on scandal
The cheery film has great music but treatment of rock ‘n’ roll singer’s union with his young cousin makes for queasy viewing Wild man of rock ‘n’ roll … Dennis Quaid as Jerry Lee Lewis. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext Collection Movies Reel history
Jerry Lee Lewis (Quaid) plays piano (as opposed to a guitar like most other rock artists) during rock and roll’s early years from 1956 to 1958. Jerry Lee is a man with many different sides: a skilled performer with a little discipline, and an alcoholic. As Jerry Lee rises to the top of the charts with such hits as “Crazy Arms”, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On”, and “Great Balls of Fire”, he falls in love with Myra Gale Brown (Winona Ryder), the 13-year-old daughter of his first cousin (and bass player) J. W. Brown (John Doe), and eventually marries her (eloping to Mississippi), much to the anger and chagrin of her parents.
A subplot deals with Jerry Lee’s relationship with another cousin, (now-televangelist) Jimmy Swaggart (Alec Baldwin), who, during this period, was a struggling Pentecostal preacher. Jimmy’s career kept him in constant conflict with his cousin’s wild rock and roll career and brings out some uncomfortable exchanges between the two. The now-financially successful Jerry Lee buys a new car and gives it to his cousin, and when Jimmy praises the Lord for the gift, Jerry Lee replies, “Don’t thank Jesus, thank Jerry Lee Lewis!”
While Jerry Lee is touring in England 1958, a British reporter discovers he is married to his teenage cousin. Jerry Lee is then condemned as a child molester and a pervert by the public. As a result, his British tour is canceled and he is deported from England. But it does not diminish Jerry Lee’s confidence that his career will continue. However, the scandal follows him back to the States.
Jerry Lee begins drinking heavily when record sales and concert attendances are significantly down. He is furious when requested to print a public apology in Billboard and becomes increasingly abusive toward Myra. It was during one of these abusive episodes that Myra informs Jerry Lee that she is pregnant, and he collapses into Myra’s arms, crying hysterically.
Jerry Lee and Myra attend a church service conducted by Swaggart. When Jimmy offers one more chance to become saved and get right with God, Jerry Lee again refuses, declaring, “If I’m going to hell, I’m going there playing the piano!” The caption preceding the closing credits reads, “Jerry Lee Lewis is playing his heart out somewhere in America tonight.”
Dennis Quaid as Jerry Lee Lewis Winona Ryder as Myra Gale Brown John Doe as J.W. Brown Stephen Tobolowsky as Jud Phillips Trey Wilson as Sam Phillips Alec Baldwin as Jimmy Swaggart Steve Allen as Himself Lisa Blount as Lois Brown Joshua Sheffield as Rusty Brown Mojo Nixon as James Van Eaton Jimmie Vaughan as Roland Janes David R. Ferguson as Jack Clement Robert Lesser as Alan Freed Michael St. Gerard as Elvis Presley Lisa Jane Persky as Babe Peter Cook as British reporter Jerry Lee Lewis (credited as “The Killer Himself”) performed vocals and piano
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