Great Balls of Fire! (Blu-ray)
(Olive Films, 2.27.2018)
Movies about the early days of rock and rock roll (ie. The Buddy Holly Story, La Bamba) tend to get bogged down in a nostalgic reverence for their period and its perceived historic importance that takes us out of the moment, stripping the subject matter of its messy, hormone-fuelled appeal. Great Balls of Fire! is not one of those movies. Arguably the most underrated rock biopic of all time, this lively portrait of Jerry Lee Lewis (memorably played by Dennis Quaid) abandons all earnestness, in order to create a complex portrait of a "more innocent time." In some ways, innocence is the film's primary subject, one investigated via the central controversy of Lewis' life: his marriage to 13-year-old first cousin (once removed), Myra Gale Brown (Winona Ryder in one of her best performances). For biopic purposes, this turns out to be a fortunate event, as it takes any gestures toward naivete off the table. Instead, we get a refreshingly clear-eyed portrait of the rock and roll life that acknowledges the messy, disturbing truths biopics normally ignore, without overlooking the liberating, carefree high that propelled all this excess in the first place.
Further complicating matters, the film's tone seems to be pitched from Lewis' perspective, which means the real consequence of his irresponsibility is never fully felt by the audience, even if it is repeatedly acknowledged -- in all kinds of playfully ironic ways -- by writer-director Jim McBride and his co-writer Jack Baran. A case could be made that the film's greatest virtue is its daring experiment in tone, one that feels especially relevant in 2018. Neither celebrating nor condemning Lewis for his constant impropriety, McBride bypasses the kind of sanctimony that detaches so many biopics from the moment they inhabit. It's a fitting choice for the film's subject, as Jerry Lee Lewis is essentially a one-man irreverence machine, incapable of understanding or conforming to the norms of polite society.
Of course, any intelligent person watching this film understands where Lewis went wrong, and using the film to critique his lifestyle would serve no dramatic purpose. By attempting to remain somewhat neutral, McBride forces the issue in a much more exciting and surprising way. From the moment Lewis and Brown tie the knot, their relationship is all guilt and awkwardness, which is where innocence comes into play. While there's no doubt that Lewis robs Brown of her innocence -- as she packs to move out of her parents' house, she takes a moment to put her toys away -- his adult psyche isn't much more mature than hers.
This is the disturbing irony of Great Balls of Fire!: Lewis' corrupting influence stems from his own lack of maturity, a void that probably came about because he devoted a disproportionate percentage of his life to music, rather than more common pursuits like, say, learning not to marry your cousin. McBride and Quaid effectively capture this childishness in the aftermath of the marriage, treating the whole debacle like the mischievous screw-up of a little kid, the kind of offense you might get grounded for.
If this all seems a little rambling and unhinged, there's a good reason for that: Great Balls of Fire! is a vital, convention-smashing biopic that takes an extremely restrictive subgenre (the rock biopic) and expands its potential, leaving viewers an abundance of conflicting issues to consider. While you should see this film for the supporting players alone (the cast includes Alec Baldwin, X's John Doe, Stephen Tobolowsky, the late, great Trey Wilson, and even cult movie historian Joe Bob Briggs), the main attractions are Quaid and Ryder. This is also a major triumph for McBride, a great overlooked auteur who gives the proceedings the same poppy kick as his Breathless remake, but with the thought-provoking richness of his earlier experiments, namely David Holzman's Diary and Glen and Randa.
This no-nonsense release from Olive Films includes a strong transfer, a theatrical trailer, and nothing else. In any case, the film itself has more than enough to offer, even as the credits roll. For one, we learn that piano and vocals for Jerry Lee Lewis were performed by "the killer himself." It's also worth noting that this 29-year-old film concludes with a once-impressive claim that is now downright shocking (but still potentially true): "Jerry Lee Lewis is playing his heart out somewhere in America tonight." Be sure to see Great Balls of Fire! while that claim is still accurate. -- Jonathan Doyle