Great Balls of Fire! Jerry Lee Lewis biopic strikes wrong note on scandal

Cheery film has great music but treatment of rock'n'roll singer's union with his young cousin makes for queasy viewing

Director: Jim McBride
Entertainment grade: D–
History grade: C+

Jerry Lee Lewis broke through as a rock'n'roll musician in the late 1950s. His career foundered after he bigamously married Myra Gale Brown, his first cousin once removed, when she was just 13 years old.

Romance

Great Balls of Fire
Great Balls of Fire Photograph: PR

In 1956, the 21-year-old Lewis moves in with his cousin JW Brown in Memphis, Tennessee. Immediately, he clocks Brown's 12-year-old daughter, Myra Gale. It's not great for a 21-year-old to be macking on a 12-year-old, but the fact that the film casts Dennis Quaid, then 35 but looking raddled thanks to a bad peroxide job, opposite Winona Ryder, then 18 but looking much younger, makes it seem even worse. Quaid's performance is fine – the real Jerry Lee Lewis and the real Myra Gale Brown both found it convincing – but he is simply too old for the role. Whereas Lewis's brashness, selfishness and recklessness may be to some extent understandable in a young lad, it's desperate and creepy in a man who appears to be approaching middle age.

Music

Great Balls of Fire
Great Balls of Fire Photograph: PR

At Sun Records, Sam Phillips – the man who discovered Elvis Presley – listens to Lewis's demo, Crazy Arms. After just a few seconds, he says: "I can sell that." This is accurate. Looking for a song to launch his career, Lewis sneaks into a dance hall amid an otherwise entirely black audience to hear Big Maybelle (Valerie Wellington) singing Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On. Though the scene is fictionalised, it is a neat way of informing the viewer that the song was first recorded by a black singer, and that rock'n'roll involved a lot of white performers appropriating black music, usually without credit.

Fame

Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On propels Lewis to overnight stardom. Elvis trudges into Sun Records, looking baleful. Anyone watching this film who didn't know about Elvis Presley would get the impression that Elvis's career ended in 1958 when he joined the army, and Jerry Lee Lewis then took over as the greatest star in rock'n'roll. Of course, there probably isn't anyone watching this film who doesn't know about Elvis Presley.

Marriage

Great Balls of Fire
Great Balls of Fire Photograph: C5 TV Photograph: C5 TV

Despite the screaming teenyboppers, Lewis has set his sights on Myra. He takes her for something called a Kreme Cup. She starts talking about the H-bomb and crying. Thoughtfully, he makes a move on her. Not long afterwards, they're out for a drive when Lewis abruptly presents her with a marriage licence. "I'm only 13 years old," she says. It's too late – they're already heading across state lines into Mississippi, towards a rickety chapel. In real life, according to Myra's autobiography, Lewis did at least ask her two days before, rather than when they were already on the road.

Law

In 1957, the legal age for marriage in Mississippi was 14 for men and 12 for women, though it was revised upwards by a law passed that year. This particular marriage, Lewis's third despite his own still-tender years, was illegal on grounds of bigamy. Unfortunately, the real story gets a lot darker than the film is prepared to admit. Perhaps it hopes the viewer might somehow root for Lewis. By this point, that's quite a challenge.

Scandal

Great Balls of Fire
Great Balls of Fire Photograph: PR

At the height of Jerry Lee's fame, the Lewises travel to London for a tour. They're met at the airport by Peter Cook. Yes, that Peter Cook. He's playing a reporter. "I hate covering arrivals," he moans. "Didn't hear you complaining when it was Liberace," says a fellow reporter. "Oh, look here," Cook snaps back. "You're not suggesting that an artiste of Liberace's stature can be likened to the boogie-woogie of the gum-chewing country bumpkin?" Best moment in this movie by miles. The film is correct in suggesting that the London press exposed Lewis's marriage, that he cut short his tour, and that the scandal ended the superstar phase of his career. However, it apparently feels it must end on a happy note, so there's a rousing final sing-song. In real life, there was no happy note. As the real Myra wrote, "The good ol' days, of which there were exactly 569, were over."

Verdict

If you're determined to make a fun, feelgood movie, a marriage between a manipulative bigamist and a terrified minor that spirals off into alcoholism, violence and ruination may not be the ideal subject matter. Even if the music is really, really good.

Contributor

Alex von Tunzelmann

The GuardianTramp

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