FILMS

Too hot to handle

Hollywood sanitizes the Jerry Lee Lewis story

Brian D. Johnson July 10 1989
FILMS

Too hot to handle

Hollywood sanitizes the Jerry Lee Lewis story

Brian D. Johnson July 10 1989

Important people have died in Memphis. Civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on a motel balcony there in 1968. Elvis Presley expired of apparent heart failure in his Graceland mansion, which is now the city's top tourist attraction. But at a party last month on the open-air rooftop of the old Peabody Hotel downtown, the city's most famous living legend was celebrating three decades of uncanny survival. Rock `n' roll's original wild man, Jerry Lee Lewis, was the guest of honor at a lavish gala for Great Balls of Fire!, the movie about his early career that opened last week across North America.

It was a balmy night. A rockabilly band played under a darkening sky. And a rising moon cast a gun-metal sheen over the sullen Mississippi, which flows through the heart of Memphis. As the crowd waited for Lewis to take a turn onstage, a burning piano—with gas flames licking the open lid—was wheeled to his table. Behind it followed an enormous cake in the shape of a baby grand. Lewis, looking lean and pallid at the age of 53, carved a slice out of the cream-filled keyboard and smiled for the flashing cameras. But his eyes betrayed the wary look of a caged animal. Hollywood had come to Memphis, and Lewis was still not sure what to make of it. “It’s all happened so fast,” he told Maclean’s, “I don’t really know what’s going on. It seems everything that happens to me is always bam, bam, bam.”

They call him the Killer. A sharecropper’s son from Ferriday, La., Lewis acquired the nickname as a schoolboy. He has since developed a reputation to match it. In the 1950s, he once ended a concert by pouring lighter fluid over his piano and setting it alight. Now, fresh flames are fanning his career, as Great Balls of Fire! brings the Lewis legend to the big screen. Starring Dennis Quaid, the movie is deeply disappointing. But the singer, who is performing at Toronto’s SkyDome next week, rerecorded his old hits for the movie’s sound track—and they sound better than the originals.

Great Balls of Fire! romanticizes a brief blaze of notoriety in the Killer’s youth—from 1956 to 1958. In that period, he sold more than 20 million records with such hits as Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On. And with Presley sidelined briefly in the army, Lewis threatened to usurp Elvis’s title as king of rock ’n’ roll. But the Killer suffered a swift fall from grace after marrying his 13-year-old second cousin, Myra Gale Brown, who became his third wife. During a British tour, the press turned the issue of his child bride into a front-page scandal, which spread to North America, ruining his career.

Since then, Lewis’s life has resembled a TV soap opera. The first cousin of scandal-tainted evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, Lewis once put a bullet in the chest of his bass player, Norman (Butch) Owens, who lived to sue and win $125,000 in 1976. While Elvis was still alive, Lewis was arrested for drunkenly waving a pistol outside Graceland’s gates. Last fall, he declared bankruptcy, and has had his house raided by the Internal Revenue Service. He is also lucky to be alive: in 1981, Lewis almost died from an ulcerated stomach, the result of drug and alcohol abuse.

Some of those close to him have not been so fortunate. His three-year-old son, Steve Allen, drowned in a backyard pool in 1962. His 19-year-old son, Jerry Lee Jr., a veteran of mental hospitals and addiction wards, was killed when he flipped his Jeep in 1973. Lewis has married six times. His fourth wife, Jaren, was found on the bottom of a Memphis swimming pool in 1982, the victim of a mysterious drowning. And the 1983 death of his fifth wife, 25-year-old Shawn Michelle Lewis, created controversy. Memphis medical examiner Jerry Francisco—famous for his kid-glove handling of Presley’s death—ruled out foul play in Shawn’s death, which he attributed to water in the lungs. According to a detailed investigation by Rolling Stone magazine, Francisco’s report omitted forensic evidence, including bruises and bloodstains, that suggested signs of a struggle in the Lewis house.

Taken as a whole, the Jerry Lee legend was simply too vast and too hot for Hollywood to handle. As Lewis himself points out, “You could do my life story and have nothing in it but weddings and funerals.” Los Angeles producer Adam Fields, 33, spent eight years trying to get it off the ground. One of his difficulties was the volatile nature of his subject. Said Fields: “The problem with living legends when you’re trying to make a movie about one is that legend goes right on living—Jerry Lee was living his life faster than we could write it.”

Fields narrowed his focus to the beginning of Lewis’s career. But he still had trouble getting support. After reading the script, movie mogul Dino De Laurentis said that it was not funny enough—it turned out that he thought its subject was Jerry Lewis, the comedian. And Fields says that another executive told him: “Listen, kid, you can’t make a movie about someone who marries a 13-year-old. Why don’t you go get a job?” Lewis was perceived as “such a dark character,” Fields added, “that no one wanted to do a movie about him.”

Finally, Orion Pictures took the risk, making Great Balls its main contender for the summer box office. The result, however, is a sanitized portrayal of Lewis with almost no hint of the darkness that is so much a part of his legend. In a ridiculously mannered performance, Quaid plays the singer as a gum-snapping country bumpkin whose only sin seems to be excessive stupidity. Relying more on mimicry than on acting, he patronizes the character with cartoon-like mugging. But Winona Ryder—highly compelling as the Killer’s sassy teenage bride, Myra—seems to be acting in a different movie, treating her side of the story as sincere emotional drama. Meanwhile, Great Balls of Fire! makes a facile morality play out of the rivalry between Lewis and Swaggart (Alec Baldwin), who keeps branding rock ’n’ roll “the devil’s music.”

Director Jim McBride says that he deliberately stayed away from realism. The movie, he added, was designed as a musical comedy. Indeed, there are moments when it lurches into fantasy. In one, a singing Jerry Lee whisks Myra from the steps of her high school and spirits her to the altar in his red convertible. In another, the new bride dances through a furniture store on a suburban shopping spree. But those scenes seem like awkward attempts to integrate a Hollywood love story with rock ’n’ roll. Marrying the music to the romance “presented a lot of problems,” acknowledged McBride. “Most of Jerry Lee’s songs are not love songs—they’re about sex. He’s no Julio Iglesias.”

Although the director decided to forgo realism, the actors became involved with their real-life counterparts. Quaid spent three weeks with Lewis and literally put himself in the singer’s shoes—he borrowed an old pair and wore them throughout the shoot. The 35-year-old actor said that he tried to play the 22-year-old Lewis as “a nine-year-old kid who fell in love with the piano.” Ryder, meanwhile, met Myra Gale Lewis, whose book about her 13-year marriage to the rock legend, Great Balls of Fire!, became the basis of the movie.

Lewis quarrels with some of the film’s most basic assumptions. Quaid portrays him as a man hopelessly in love. “That’s bullshit, big-time bullshit,” the singer said in a Memphis interview. “I don’t think it was a real love affair—it was just a girl I made love to.” Contrary to what happens in the movie, he added, she dragged him to the altar. “I thought I had to live up to my obligations,” he said, “and she forced my hand on it.” Initially, Lewis rejected the script, scrawling “lies, lies, lies” over the copy he was given to read. But he eventually relented. “Yessir,” he recalled, sucking on a pipe, “if I’d lingered with the script, I wouldn’t have gone for it at all. But I was so tired of fooling with this movie for years and years, I just wanted to get it done—before I’ve passed on.” He added, “I don’t think it’s nothing that I can’t live with.”

Lewis had trouble convincing the moviemakers that he was best qualified to record the sound track. Quaid, also a musician, was at first adamant about doing his own singing. When the actor met the singer before filming began, Lewis told him, “Son, you can’t sing like Jerry Lee Lewis.” And Quaid replied, “You can’t act like Dennis Quaid.” In the end, Lewis prevailed. Now, with a late-career comeback riding on Great Balls of Fire!, Lewis is giving it his resigned stamp of approval. “It’s a good movie, and Dennis did a good job,” he said, reserving his highest praise for “the wonderful little girl who played Myra.”

The Killer is still the most faithful keeper of his own flame. While the Elvis legend has grown bigger in death than it ever was in life, Lewis keeps himself and his reputation alive with soft-spoken bravado. Maintaining that he was never jealous of the King, he said, “I never claimed to be the greatest—just the best.” Asked about his intimidating reputation, the Killer’s gaze hardened into a cold stare. “I’ve got a reputation for being a lot of things,” he said. “Talk is cheap, and there is a lot of cheap talk. But I am here and I am breathing.”

At the Memphis party, he stepped onstage, pipe in hand. “In G, boys—it’s boogie-woogie time,” he drawled, then started banging out an old blues standard on the piano. Then it began to rain—just a few drops, but Lewis kept glancing at the sky with a worried look. He stalled between songs. “I believe in God Almighty and I believe in the archangel,” he said, “and these two beings might be conjuring up something against the Killer: I don’t want to be electrocuted.” Presumptuous perhaps—but after so many years of playing with fire, the Killer has learned to guard his back.