When Dennis Quaid, duded out and blonded up as Jerry Lee Lewis, swaggers to the stage to pump a piano and sing “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” “Breathless,” “Wild One,” “Crazy Arms” or the incomparable title song, this movie can shake your nerves, rattle your brain and at the very least make you feel like dancing. Jerry Lee recorded new versions of his Fifties hits for Quaid to lip-sync (which Quaid does expertly), and the Killer has rarely thundered with more thrilling ferocity. Lewis’s vintage rock is still cause for cheering. Too bad the movie that contains these Killer sounds never rises above a whimper.
Director Jim McBride and associate producer Jack Baran have adapted their lightweight screenplay from a substantially grittier 1982 book by Murray Silver and Myra Gale Brown. Myra, played by Winona Ryder (Heathers), is the second cousin Jerry Lee married when she was thirteen and he hadn’t yet bothered to divorce his second wife. The movie begins in 1957, when Elvis discoverer Sam Phillips, superbly acted by the late Trey Wilson, set up the Killer as chief rival for the King’s throne. The movie ends two years later, with Lewis a has-been at twenty-three, his career sandbagged by the media scandal over his marriage. His subsequent problems with women, brawls, booze and drugs, the hypocrisy of his preacher cousin, Jimmy Swaggart (Alec Baldwin), and the mysterious death of his fifth wife (he’s currently on number 6) do not figure here. Fair enough. But even an early film bio could and should provide insights into how a God-fearing kid from Ferriday, Louisiana, became one of the sexiest, scariest figures of rock legend.
Instead, McBride and Baran offer a candy-coated gloss on a combustible career. Quaid, whose recent work for McBride in The Big Easy showed a mesmerizing, maturing talent, is rarely permitted to cut deeper than a cunning nightclub impersonation. Quaid’s take on the young, hotheaded Jerry Lee as a well-meaning bumpkin radiates scads of energy but scant conviction. Ironically, Ryder’s vividly real performance as Myra works against him. Ryder, now seventeen, lets us in on the confusion and conflicting emotions of this child bride without once playing down to the audience or patronizing the character; she is smashing.
To his credit, Quaid makes the sight of the Killer toying sexually with his underage cousin in a game of “creepy mouse,” well, creepy. But the movie mostly dodges the Killer’s dark side. We’re told that lots of folks back home married young; that Jerry Lee really loved Myra; that maybe Myra wasn’t really a virgin. Whenever the going gets tough, the movie gets going. After the Myra story broke, Lewis was reduced to playing dives. But the film ends with a full-scale production number. There’s also a photo of a grinning Jerry Lee and Myra with their infant son, circa 1959, that suggests everyone lived happily ever after. Ha! Myra wrote of two people haunted by demons; McBride’s movie plays like Bye Bye Birdie. Any which way you look at it, Great Balls of Fire stacks up as something small, shriveled and inexplicably tame, Goodness gracious indeed.