30 Years Ago: Jerry Lee Lewis ‘Great Balls of Fire’ Film Fizzles
All of the enticing elements were there: drama, stardom, controversy, rock and roll. Yet when filmmakers set out to create a movie around the life of Jerry Lee Lewis, the result, 1989's Great Balls of Fire, was disappointing, both at the box office and for the real-life rocker.
Condensing Lewis' life into one film was always going to be a daunting task. Instead, producers decided to focus on a specific period of the musician's career. From 1956-1958, Lewis went from playing small clubs to being one of the biggest artists in the world, only to have it all come crashing down around him in the midst of scandal. The events of this 18-month span would form the movie's story.
“His life is so hugely textured and consistently eventful it seemed out of the question to attempt covering it all,” noted Adam Fields, the film’s producer, in The Dark Stuff: Selected Writings on Rock Music. “For me, Jerry Lee is the last great American original to be immortalized on celluloid.”
Director Jim McBride helmed the movie, while actor Dennis Quaid signed on to star. The duo previously teamed up on the 1987 film The Big Easy, earning critical acclaim and a strong box office return.
Quaid called playing Lewis a “big challenge,” admitting the musician’s wild personality attracted him to the role. “He’s like a goldmine, that’s how I see it. He’s also pretty scary. You have to take a big chance to really get near what’s goin’ on in his heart.”
The screenplay was based on the book Great Balls of Fire, written by Myra Lewis, the rocker’s ex-wife who had been at the center of controversy in the late ‘50s. When reporters discovered that Myra was both Lee’s relative and only 13 years of age, it launched a turbulent scandal that derailed the singer’s career.
Jerry Lee was outspoken in his hatred of the biography, arguing that the way Myra's accounts were not historically accurate. The rocker once told his ex-wife, “That ain’t no Great Balls of Fire you wrote. You shoulda called it Great Buncha Balls instead, darlin’, ‘cos that’s all it is!”
Though he disapproved of Myra’s book being used as the source material, Jerry Lee agreed to be an advisor on the film. He also rerecorded many of his best-known songs for the soundtrack.
Production faced many pitfalls. As noted in The Dark Stuff: Selected Writings on Rock Music, the filming of Great Balls of Fire was “long, costly and arduous, as well as being plagued by illness and inclement weather.”
Still, there was no more destructive presence than Lewis himself. The rocker continually grappled with producers over his portrayal and the accuracy of events. One particularly salacious rumor claimed that Lewis pulled a gun on Fields during negotiations. Though both parties later denied that particular confrontation, they admitted to having a combative relationship. This included a moment when Lewis stormed into Fields' office and scrawled "Lies. Lies. Lies." across the script’s pages.
"You have to understand this about Jerry," McBride quipped while promoting the film in 1989, "it's sort of his way of getting to know you - to threaten your life. It's just part of his manner."
Another point of contention, the movie’s religious subplot. Lewis had a long and convoluted history with faith and spirituality, due in no small part to his relationship with his cousin, Pentecostal evangelist Jimmy Swaggart. “Jerry’s tormented by his religious beliefs,” noted Fields, admitting that the issue caused many arguments between he and the rock icon. “He sees himself as forever torn between doing God’s work and singing the Devil’s music. It’s a very personal thing with him, something he lives with and something he feels uncomfortable about having splashed over a cinema screen.”
When Great Balls of Fire was released on June 30, 1989, it was met with a meager box office. The film ranked seventh on its opening weekend, earning only $3.8 million. For context, Tim Burton’s Batman, starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson, bested all other motion pictures that same weekend, pulling in more than $30 million.
Critics were not kind to Great Balls of Fire, with many alleging that the script took the edge off of Lewis’ gritty and scandalous life. Roger Ebert called it “simpleminded rock 'n' roll history,” claiming the film “gives us a Jerry Lee Lewis who has been sanitized, popularized and lobotomized.” The Los Angeles Times echoed similar points, describing the movie as “colorful, slick and soulless,” while accusing Great Balls of Fire of reducing Lewis "on screen to Roger Rabbit.”
Still, perhaps the most telling response came from the movie’s subject. Lewis, whose head-butting with producers had been noted throughout the project, refused to give Great Balls of Fire any praise while promoting the film. He instead stuck to quotes like “It's a movie and it has to be accepted as a movie,” and “They're doing a movie of my life and I think it's an honor. And I just hope they pay me." The rocker’s lone sign of approval was reserved for Quaid. “He was born to play me,” Lewis said of the film’s leading man. “And playin’ me in this film is gonna make him into one hell of a damn star.”