Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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GREAT BALLS OF FIRE

***

With Dennis Quaid, Winona Ryder.
Directed by Jim McBride.
(Orion Home Video, color).

By Robert Christgau and Carola Dibbell

A tortured, substance-abusing, hard-to-like genius, more Dennis Hopper than Dennis Quaid, Jerry Lee Lewis is a lot harder to dramatize than Buddy Holly or John Lennon. So Jim McBride, whose Breathless also depicted a pretty crazy guy, elected to dump the nuances, focusing on the brief period preceding the scandal that stymied his conquest of teendom--Lewis's bigamous marriage to his thirteen-year-old cousin Myra Gale, who wrote the book McBride worked from.

Like so many others, Great Balls of Fire is no great shakes as a rock and roll movie. The black Louisiana juke joints that converted young Jerry Lee to the devil's music are too archetypal to be believed even if they're dead accurate, which we doubt. And how the hell does a mortal actor play Jerry Lee Lewis when the man himself still walks among us, possessed by the spirit--some spirit--even when he's looking like a cross between a corpse and a gargoyle? Despite an evident studiousness that takes off in the later performance scenes (and some amazingly youthful overdubs by the gargoyle himself), Quaid barely approximates the magisterial arrogance that Jerry Lee has always substituted for shows of normal human feeling.

As his 13-year-old second cousin once removed, Winona Ryder has the obvious advantage of not competing with a known demigod. and we were touched by her depiction of what an ordinary teenager Myra Gale was (even if she wasn't). Her goofy, dumbstruck terror during the marriage ceremony is the movie's one brilliant bit of acting, and she's the making of several of the musical-comedy style sequences--in our favorite, the child bride tours a dream house that could almost be a Devo backdrop--in which McBride cops to the stylization of his tale. These are welcome--it's certainly charming when cops and civil rights demonstrators bop along to "High School Confidential." But if Jerry Lee had gotten over on charm, McBride would never have made a movie about him.

Video Review, Oct. 1989