Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The recent Jersey Boys and Get On Up have us thinking back on better biopics about musicians.
Great Balls Of Fire! (1989)
Director Jim McBride plays fast and loose with history in Great Balls Of Fire!, a fanciful biopic of Jerry Lee Lewis that fixates on the legend more than the facts. With the exception of a 1944 prologue in which little Jerry Lee and his cousin Jimmy Swaggart (later played by Alec Baldwin) spy on a black music club in Ferriday, Louisiana—thus igniting the piano player’s lifelong love of “devil music”—the film resists explaining its subject’s rowdy and randy nature. Working from a script co-written by Lewis’ child bride Myra Gale Brown, who helped adapt her own book, McBride instead focuses on how Jerry Lewis (Dennis Quaid) rose to fame on the strength of his unique rock ’n’ roll tunes. The songs radiate a sexuality so potent that it sends nearly everyone in earshot into an uncontrollable tizzy—including, most crucially, Myra (Winona Ryder), Jerry Lee’s 13-year-old second cousin and the daughter of his bass player and manager, J.W. (John Doe).
Great Balls Of Fire! doesn’t shy away from Jerry Lee and Myra’s relationship: A wedding ceremony, featuring hilarious stunned/happy/frightened reaction shots by Ryder, leads to career-halting controversy. Yet instead of painting the romance as a grotesquely pedophilic and incestuous turn of events, the film treats it like an unfortunate professional speed bump, as well as a natural manifestation of its protagonist’s devil-may-care attitude. Significant and dubious liberties are taken with Jerry Lee’s often-unsavory life, most of them designed to make him more palatable to audiences. Nevertheless, McBride pays rousing tribute to the man’s music through a series of montages that capture the freewheeling erotic charge of songs like “Great Balls Of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” In those sequences, the director provides a magnificent showcase for his star, as a lip-synching Quaid swaggers across the screen like a man possessed by both talent and ego.
Availability: Great Balls Of Fire! is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store, or to rent or purchase digitally from Amazon Instant Video.