Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

Consumer Guide:
  User's Guide
  Grades 1990-
  Grades 1969-89
  And It Don't Stop
  Book Reports
  Is It Still Good to Ya?
  Going Into the City
  Consumer Guide: 90s
  Grown Up All Wrong
  Consumer Guide: 80s
  Consumer Guide: 70s
  Any Old Way You Choose It
  Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough
Xgau Sez
  And It Don't Stop
  CG Columns
  Rock&Roll& [new]
  Rock&Roll& [old]
  Music Essays
  Music Reviews
  Book Reviews
  NAJP Blog
  Rolling Stone
  Video Reviews
  Pazz & Jop
Web Site:
  Site Map
  What's New?
Carola Dibbell:
  Carola's Website
CG Search:
Google Search:



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