Everybody has their own favorite director/actor combinations: Welles/Cotton, Scorsese/De Niro, Burton/Depp, Ford/Wayne, Hitchcock/Stewart, etc. Although they only made two movies together, the combination of McBride/Quaid produced two of my favorite movies: "The Big Easy" and "Great Balls of Fire". Before you start writing angry comments about how dare I include this pair of names with the others previously mentioned, please don't think for a moment that I believe Jim McBride and Dennis Quaid are in the same league of those names first mentioned. However, there is no denying that I love their two collaborations and both have a place in my list of favorite movies.
Before I begin my review, a short personal story about Jerry Lee Lewis. My mother used to always attend the country shows put on here in Greenville, SC, by the local country music station, they were known as WESC Shindigs and would include a line up of different country artists. She usually had someone to go with her, but sometimes her concert companion wouldn't be able to attend and she would ask me to go with her. At one of these shows, Jerry Lee Lewis was the headliner (remember this was when the rock audience had lost interest in Jerry Lee and he had found a new audience with country fans). The first part of Jerry Lee's segment was a run through of his country hits and the audience reacted pretty much like they did with all the previous acts: seated and clapping along with the songs. In the second half of his act, Jerry Lee returned to his rock roots and started blasting away at the piano, kicking his piano bench away, playing standing up, playing the piano with the heel of his boot, etc. (if you've seen any of Jerry Lee on film, you know what I'm talking about). The auditorium turned into bedlam, people on their feet, people dancing in the aisles, people screaming, and best of all a couple of ladies even passed out!!! An unforgettable performance.
Great Balls of Fire is based on Myra Lewis' book "Great Balls of Fire: The Uncensored Story of Jerry Lee Lewis" which she co-wrote with Murray Silver. Since we're looking at Jerry Lee through the eyes of Myra, it means the movie starts with the first time she met Jerry Lee and continues through Jerry Lee's rise to stardom and subsequent fall from grace when he married her, his 13 year old cousin. Which also results in one on my favorite lines in the movie, when Myra (Winona Ryder) hears on BBC TV that it's been revealed that she's Jerry Lee's cousin, she says: "But we're second cousins, twice removed!"
I've read many times that people thought Dennis Quaid was over the top in the way that he "aped" Jerry Lee. I would beg to differ, since Jerry Lee in real life is an "over the top character", maybe Dennis didn't even go far enough.
John Doe, Mojo Nixon, and Jimmy Vaughn all play members of Jerry Lee's band in the movie, plus John Doe portrays J.W., Myra's father. Other musicians we meet along the way: Elvis (Michael St. Gerard) who just HAPPENS to drop by Sun Studios twice, once when Jerry Lee is signing his contract and once in his army uniform (I'm assuming Elvis was leaving for Germany). Big Maybelle (Valerie Wellington) at a black juke joint and in the same club we see Piano Slim (Booker T. Laury). Chuck Berry (played by an uncredited actor) is in disagreement about who is going to close a show, Chuck's agent wins the argument, but Jerry Lee pulls out all the stops, including setting his piano on fire, and then tells Chuck..."Follow That Killer!". In real life, Chuck claims that Jerry Lee didn't use the word "killer"..I'll let you fill in the word that Chuck says he was called (a side note: Jerry Lee denies Chuck's claim). We also get Steve Allen playing Steve Allen and even though Steve was a noted rock and roll hater, I think he might have dug Jerry Lee because as a fellow pianist, he recognized the talent Jerry Lee had on the piano. Although I understand Dennis Quaid did some of the piano playing you see in the movie, Jason D. Williams did most of the close up keyboard work.
A trio of non-musicians were important to the film's storyline: Sam Phillips (Trey Wilson), "Daddy O" Dewey Phillips (Joe Bob Briggs, credited here with his real name John Bloom) and Alec Baldwin as Jerry Lee's cousin Jimmy Swaggart. Which brings me to another point, I think Swaggart was included to enable the movie makers to present the struggle a lot of early rock performers had between playing sacred or secular music (Little Richard being a prime example, but even Elvis never got too far away from his church roots). It's just my opinion, but I think you would have had to grown up here in The South (I'm referring to the 50s, 60s South) to understand the pull that can happen between these two factions within some people. There's definitely a fine line between Pentecostal Religious Music and Rock Music.
One of my favorite scenes is Jerry Lee driving to the school to pick up Myra, his song "High School Confidential" is playing on his car radio and evidently everyone's radio, because the whole student body starts dancing all across the school campus....all I could think was shades of Rock n Roll High School. Which brings me to my final thought on Great Balls of Fire: If you view this movie as some type of historical document, then you'll be disappointed. However, if you watch the movie looking for the spirit that was early rock and roll, I think you'll be mighty pleased.