Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On

Newsweek — 10 July 1989

A high-octane tribute to a ’50s musical legend

— by David Ansen

Brash, bold and broad, Great Balls of Fire holds up a fun-house mirror to the life of Jerry Lee Lewis, the rock-and-roll wild man whose meteoric career in the mid-’50s crashed and burned when word got out he’d married his 13-year-old cousin (while still married to a previous wife). Concentrating on these few hyberbolic years, director Jim McBride (“The Big Easy”) and co-writer Jack Baran have chose to focus on the legend, not the man. What they’re after is the raucous, rebellious spirit of rock and roll itself, spelled out in the primary colors of a 1950s musical. Anyone expecting a psychological expose of Lewis’s scandal-ridden life — his six wives, his alcoholism, his troubles with the IRS and reports of violence — should look elsewhere. Dennis Quaid’s cocky, flamboyant Lewis, played with a preening audaciousness so broad re resembles a cartoon character, is no saint, but the movie celebrates him as an exuberant sinner who gave 150 percent of himself to his music. Like his God-fearing cousin Jimmy Swaggart (Alec Baldwin), he’s an evangelical performer, but instead of praising Jesus he sings secular hosannas to raging teen hormones.

The advantage of McBride’s stylized, movie-movie approach is that he’s able for the most part to avoid the dutiful approach of a “La Bamba” or “Buddy Holly Story.” There may not be much going on under the surface, but “Great Balls of Fire” is never drab. The musical set pieces really cook (Lewis re-recorded his old hits for the movie) especially, Valerie Wellington’s and Lewis’s versions of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” What the movie can’t do is bring the story to a satisfying conclusion. McBride tries to keep the upbeat tone, but he’s stuck with downbeat facts, and the tale just breaks off at an arbitrary point.

The movie’s most delicate accomplishment is its funny, sympathetic depiction of Lewis’s love affair with the schoolgirl Myra (on whose memoirs the film is based). Winona Ryder again proves herself the most gifted and endearing teen actress around. She plays off Quaid’s manic romantic assault with breathtaking spontaneity, her fresh, wide-eyed face running the scale of adolescent emotions, from glazed puppy love to pop-eyed bewilderment.

Having played the strange, black clad daughter in “Beetlejuice,” the reluctant high-school killer in “Heathers” and now the child bride Myra Lewis, Winona Ryder admits she’s “a magnet for really controversial roles.: She’s drawn to dark comedy and offbeat characters — the risk excites her. “Heathers” isn’t only her favorite part, it’s on of her favorite movies, along with “Brazil” and “My Life as a Dog.” This is not a typical teenager’s roll call of faves, but then how many teenagers can claim Timothy Leary as their godfather?

Born Winona Horowitz in Winona, Minn., she grew up in Petaluma, Calif., a good student but something of an outcast at Petaluma High with her taste for vintage men’s suits and her passion for books and writing. Her father, a rare-book seller, and her mother, a film buff, were veterans of Haight-Ashbury and counted Leary and Aldous Huxley among their friends. The third of four children in a close-knit family, Winona had an active imagination early on and was studying acting at 12 when an agent discovered her from a screen test. Shortly thereafter she landed her first role in “Lucas” and hasn’t stopped working since.

Enviable moment: Besieged with offers, heralded as a star of the future, sometimes dubbed a “heartthrob” (“I think of Shaun Cassidy when I hear that,” she giggles), Ryder is at an enviable but uncertain moment. She’s now shooting “Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael” and will costar with Cher in “Mermaids” in the fall. But she’d like to attend college “back East” and she fantasizes about marrying and having children in Minnesota.

But that’s getting ahead of herself. At the moment she’s a 17-year-old flushed with her first taste of independence, having recently rented an apartment in Los Angeles with her best friend Heather (yes, Heather). She’s excited, faced with such unfamiliar responsibilities as calling the gas company for gas. She insists that a star trip is not for her; indeed that acting, as much as she loves it, is not her first priority. “The minute I start taking it all too seriously someone will slap me into shape,” she says with a laugh. She’s keeping in mind some words of advice given her by the late Trey Wilson, who appeared with her in “Great Balls of Fire”: “No matter what you do in your life or career, work hard but always remember to have a good time, otherwise what are you doing it for?”