For me, GREAT BALLS OF FIRE! was an unintentional rollercoaster of a movie. It wasn’t created for the purpose of shaking my own emotions. Instead I naturally went from confusion, puzzlement, surprise and finally to pondering. Having known nothing about the film, I popped in in and began wondering if this was a comedy. Jerry Lee Lewis (Quaid) is off-the-walls with his personality and piano playing. He jumps from home to home talking about how rock ‘n roll is his life blood. It almost seems like a hyper caricature of a real person, but when I kept looking at the Blu-ray box confused because it described the film as a “docu-drama,” I assumed that maybe my perception of the film was wrong and that this was how the musician was in real life.
Then the rushed manner of his career, as he goes from playing inside a house to a few friends to selling out shows, having sex with groupies and signing huge record deals, confused me. The film seemed so genuinely disinterested in the rise of Lewis’ star. Having known nothing other than the song the film’s title is based on, I was puzzled as to why such little time was spent on the shooting star rise to fame, unlike other movies like WALK THE LINE or RAY. But then the surprise came. The film was more of a focus on how his third marriage derailed an otherwise promising career.
Lewis’ marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, Myra Brown (Ryder), was not only disgusting and shocking, but rightfully sunk his billboard topping musical career. The rest of the film plays out like an AA meeting as Lewis spirals into alcoholism, his band ends up playing smaller and smaller shows, and eventually his friends, family and bandmates become disenfranchised with the man they once knew. I didn’t start feeling sympathy for Lewis until the very end of the film.
I’ve always been adamantly critical of Hollywood’s protection of some of their well-known commodities, like sexual predator and pedophile Roman Polanski. Not only does he have several allegations, but he has a very serious conviction against him. However, most of the times I’m told I can’t refer to him as the sexual predator and pedophile that he is, I point out that by law, he’s convicted of being one. And I realized where I draw the line in the sand when it comes to the impropriety of our pop-culture idols, and it’s something that GREAT BALLS OF FIRE! possibly explains fairly well with his original intent and upbringing.
Whereas Polanski used his power to take advantage of, and his creativity to help overshadow the human being he is, Lewis, by all intents and purposes, is just ignorant. The poor boy from Louisiana didn’t see anything wrong with his marriage because he saw the marriage as making his love right in the eyes of God. Several people in the film point out that what he’s committing is incest and pedophilia, but those aren’t words or concepts he necessarily grasps. Also to further dive into his situation, he’s a man who falls in line with simple pleasure, like sex and alcohol. His relationship with his cousin was formed through misdirected love, not a troubling fetish.
The film is based on an autobiography by his cousin whom he married Myra, who appears to relay their relationship with a heavy heart. You can tell there are moments where Lewis is simply a scumbag, but other moments where he was a fragile soul who at times was unable to articulate feelings or handle the feelings he did have in an adult manner. It also paints Myra in a conflicting light, as having stuck with the man for 13 years, but it was 13 years that had an equal amount of ups to downs. That all being said, I wouldn’t blame someone for still calling him an incestuous pedophile. I just feel the adjective, “unintelligent,” should be attached as well.
There’s a difficult tonal shift in GREAT BALLS OF FIRE! that can confuse those who aren’t fully aware of Lewis, his body of work, and his life (like myself). It’s more of a focus on this 1950’s controversy that was used to highlight the evils of rock ‘n roll. The acting is fine, however I almost wonder if Keaton could have done better since his energy is so naturally manic, and Quaid seemed to almost being playing a parody of Lewis. Because the film is so short, it comes off a little clunky because of how much it breezes through everything, making fame and fortune seem like it’s easy as flipping a light switch.
I knew before sitting down to write my review that I’d have a difficult time talking about this film because of its content matter and how I’ve generally been when discussing matters involving people with a creepy past and previous misdeeds. I knew that on a scale as a film, I’d be middle of the road, but I was shocked how much it made me think about understanding the whole picture of a controversial figure. I feel like if this film was redone, it wouldn’t be as forgiving and would not give him a bright light to play piano in.
Video: (1080p HD Widescreen 1:85:1) The picture quality ranges from marginally updated to feeling like an original grainy print.
Audio: (DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0) For a musical biopic, the sound quality is as good as I’d expect, not lacking any important areas.