Great Freaks of Nature [GREAT BALLS OF FIRE]

From the Chicago Reader (July 7, 1989). — J.R.


* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Jim McBride

Written by Jack Baran and McBride

With Dennis Quaid, Winona Ryder, Alec Baldwin, John Doe, Lisa Blount, Stephen Tobolowsky, and Trey Wilson.

Given that Jim McBride’s film debut was a pseudodocumentary designed to look real (David Holzman’s Diary, 1968), and was followed by an actual diary film that was made to seem fictional (My Girlfriend’s Wedding, 1969), it should be no surprise that Great Balls of Fire, which purports to be a biopic of rock-and-roller Jerry Lee Lewis, is actually a musical-comedy fantasy about virtually imaginary characters.

For those who accept the a priori assumption that most movies are simply dreams and lies, this is only business as usual; in fact, in playing fast and loose with the facts McBride and his longtime collaborator Jack Baran are working in a grand tradition peopled by the makers of most other simpleminded Hollywood biopics. The difference here is that the falsity of their concoction is made nakedly apparent: at least two-thirds of the picture resembles a feature-length music video, patterned in some ways after the rock musicals of 30 years ago. Loving You (1957), the first Elvis Presley movie in color, is the prototype that comes to mind, although McBride and Baran give Great Balls of Fire (ostensibly based on the recent biography of the same name) a parodic gloss that contrasts with the relative innocence of what was probably Elvis’s best movie. (The principal trope they take from this form is the musical montage sequence showing the singer’s meteoric rise, with periodic cuts to the respective positions of his latest hits on the Billboard charts; but the other cliches are equally apparent.)

Unfortunately, this absence of innocence gives most of the movie a note of condescension that interferes with our belief in the characters — not only Jerry Lee Lewis himself, as played by Dennis Quaid, but also his 13-year-old bride Myra (Winona Ryder), his cousin Jimmy Swaggart (Alec Baldwin), and all the other principals. To his credit, McBride makes no bones about his focus being on the legend of Jerry Lee Lewis rather than his life, though it can be argued that (probably thanks to the pressures of test marketing and the ratings board) the movie isn’t faithful to the legend, either. While the movie can certainly be enjoyed as both a showcase for Lewis’s music (performed by Lewis and lip-synched by Quaid) and a limited stylistic exercise, its distance from its subject still takes an enormous toll.

One can perhaps get a better idea of what led to this impasse by considering Jim McBride’s checkered film career as a whole. It can more or less be divided — after a certain amount of boiling and scraping — into two parts: One part features McBride the underground, mainly New York-based independent (roughly 1967-’73), who received only marginal distribution while acquiring the reputation of a maverick for articulating a radical side of the 60s counter-culture that was unseen in Hollywood movies of the same period. The second part of McBride’s career features McBride the personal director working within the no less treacherous and decidedly less personal Hollywood mainstream (roughly 1974 to the present), making movies that are seen much more widely by people much less likely to identify his films with their director.

The films of McBride’s first period, all of which might be said to be part of an American offshoot of the French New Wave, are David Holzman’s Diary, My Girlfriend’s Wedding, Glen and Randa (1971), and Pictures From Life’s Other Side (1971). After a transitional film — a very funny soft-core sexploitation comedy called Hot Times (1974), with characters based on the leading figures in Archie comics — 12 years passed during which McBride worked on unfilmed projects and wrote the uncredited narration for the release version (i.e., the studio re-edit) of Samuel Fuller’s 1980 feature The Big Red One. Then, after this long stretch in the wilderness, McBride directed the three features for which he is best known today    — Breathless (1983), The Big Easy (1987), and now Great Balls of Fire — as well as “The Once and Future King” (1986), a first-rate half-hour episode for The Twilight Zone made shortly before that TV series expired, about an Elvis impersonator magically meeting and eventually supplanting his idol back in 1954, the last McBride work that I’ve really liked.

There are certain constants that bridge both parts of McBride’s career — a humorously ironic and slightly off-kilter absorption in the everyday that revels in the exotic peculiarities of the commonplace; a Rabelaisian gusto in the depiction of sex and sexuality; and an attitude toward culture that seeks to extract the essence of a period in comic book terms. But there’s still a strong discontinuity between his two periods that’s pointed up by a steady drop in ambition and quality over the last three features.

As a longtime admirer and supporter of McBride’s earlier work, I’ve made a concerted effort to look at the bright side of this development. After all, audiences really responded to The Big Easy, and his work now reaches a public that is astronomically larger than it was in the 60s and 70s. It’s also clear that in order to reach this position, he’s had to make major adjustments in both his style and vision. But two successive and despairing looks at his new feature have convinced me that it is not only a bad film, but something rather close to a hateful one.

The disconcerting thing about Great Balls of Fire is that it’s getting so much promotion — much more than any of McBride’s previous pictures — yet it is conceivably the least contemporary movie he has ever made. Set between 1956 and 1958 (after a brief prologue in 1944), from the time when Jerry Lee Lewis first became famous to his first major setback (when he was deported from England because of his controversial marriage to his 13-year-old second cousin), the story seems to be taking place on another planet. Despite some fleeting indications of sensitivity and thoughtfulness in the script and direction, the distance between the movie and the milieu it depicts is so pronounced that when, in the last half hour, the film becomes momentarily “serious” and the characters finally need to be perceived as something other than caricatures, they simply aren’t there. McBride does manage to coax some striking comic mugging out of Winona Ryder (Beetlejuice, Heathers), which is particularly striking during Myra’s wedding ceremony — but this fails to contribute anything to the coherence of the character. And most likely due to restrictions imposed by the movie’s real-life models and its PG-13 rating, the sexual gusto of McBride’s earlier work, which gave even the relatively impersonal The Big Easy much of its appeal, is conspicuously toned down.

According to Murray Silver — who wrote Great Balls of Fire with Myra Lewis — the picture’s most glaring departures from reality concern Myra herself, as well as her parents, Lois Brown (Lisa Blount) and J.W. Brown (John Doe), Lewis’s onetime bass player and manager. The film makes no allusion, for instance, to the fact that Myra was raped at the age of 12, and that she married Lewis the following year, according to Silver, because she was afraid it was her only chance — that she was “damaged goods.” Silver objects in particular to the movie’s suggestion that Myra’s mother helped to foster the relationship which led to the marriage, as well as to the movie’s depiction of the couple’s wedding night, in which Jerry Lee angrily mutters, “You don’t move like no virgin.” It’s true that he later repents, proclaiming “I don’t care what you did before me,” but when he carries her off to the strains of “Tara’s Theme” from Gone With the Wind, the movie’s jeering attitude toward the inner lives of its characters — which simultaneously masks and accounts for its remoteness from the redneck milieu — is made especially apparent.

It could be argued that this cheerful contempt for the world (if not the music) of Jerry Lee Lewis, which regards every character as a geek, is more honest in some ways than the bogus “sincerity” of a biopic like Lady Sings the Blues, which undoubtedly wreaks as much havoc on the facts about Billie Holiday. No one seems to find the real-life Lewis very likable apart from his music, and in order to give him some charisma in the movie, McBride and his collaborators may have had to lessen the stature of the people he was associated with.

But the indifference to the “real” Jerry Lee Lewis isn’t the movie’s creation, either. Although I haven’t read either Silver’s book or Nick Tosches’s more fanciful account of his life, it appears that the interest in Lewis from the outset has been for “good copy” rather than facts or understanding. Silver claims that perhaps the most famous Lewis legend — piqued that Chuck Berry was scheduled to follow him in concert, Lewis set fire to his piano, declaring, “Top that, nigger!” — has no basis in fact. Faithful to the legend, the movie reproduces this episode, but then manages to remove about half its voltage by changing Lewis’s exit line to, “Follow that, killer!”

In fact, Lewis’s relation to his black influences is one of the many things that the movie shows some confusion about. In the prologue, little Jerry Lee crosses the railroad tracks in Ferriday, Louisiana, with his cousin Jimmy Swaggart to hear a black blues band playing in a shack for wildly gyrating dancers — a scene that is every bit as phony and cliched as the ones that follow. “Let’s get out of here!” says Swaggart. “It’s the devil’s music — I can feel it!” But Jerry Lee stays, and a dissolve from the black pianist’s left hand to Jerry Lee’s 12 years later makes the essential point about where much of Lewis’s music came from. (Later, a record producer defines Lewis’s piano style by saying, “You take a white right hand and a black left hand, and what have you got? Rock ‘n’ roll.”) This certainly improves on the glib all-white context given to Elvis in Loving You, but unfortunately, having made the point about Lewis’s musical origins, the movie can’t (or won’t) delve into his relations to black people beyond this point. (On two occasions, Lewis is seen driving past identical civil rights demonstrations, but the movie is careful not to offer even a clue to what Lewis thinks about this activity.)

McBride’s predilection for cultural detritus is everywhere apparent — in Jerry Lee and Myra’s compulsive taste for bubble gum and other pink objects (convertible, house, cotton candy), in allusions to Superman and the H-bomb, and even in one English journalist’s indignant defense of Liberace the “artiste” over Lewis’s boogie-woogie — but the studied ignorance about the various milieus involved makes these gags effective only in the crudest way possible, without a hint of genuine observation or nuance. Like the use of “Tara’s Theme,” these details usually point to the filmmakers’ feelings of superiority to what they’re showing — an attitude that would itself make some sense, however objectionable, if what they were showing didn’t seem so jerry-built and unconvincing. (The unanimous hostility of the London audience to Lewis is a case in point — a scene so lamely imagined and realized that one suspects even a Sam Katzman quickie like Don’t Knock the Rock would have handled it better.)

The best parts of the movie are the musical numbers, which enable McBride to take his greatest liberties with verisimilitude with the least amount of derision toward his subject and (more implicitly) his audience. He clearly enjoys Lewis’s style as a performer, which Quaid does a good job of imitating, and while I regret that the movie manages to leave out my favorite Jerry Lee Lewis number — his pile-driver version of “Mean Woman Blues,” which is even better than Elvis’s original recording — the sizzling climactic rendition of “Real Wild Child” helps to make up for it. Otherwise, when it comes to treating the rock ‘n’ roll and tacky Americana of roughly the same period, Hairspray has this movie beat by miles.

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