The early career of Jerry Lee Lewis, from his rise to rock and roll stardom to his controversial marriage to his 13-year-old cousin that led to his downfall, is depicted in the film. Until the scandal of the marriage depreciated his image, many had thought Lewis would supplant Elvis Presley as the "King of Rock and Roll" in the 1950s.
Jerry Lee Lewis (Quaid) plays piano (as opposed to a guitar like most other rock artists) during rock and roll's early years from 1956 to 1958. Jerry Lee is a man with many different sides: a skilled performer with little discipline, and an alcoholic. As Jerry Lee rises to the top of the charts with such hits as "Crazy Arms", "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin On", and "Great Balls of Fire", he falls in love with Myra Gale Brown (Winona Ryder), the 13-year-old daughter of his first cousin (and bass player) J. W. Brown (John Doe), and eventually marries her (eloping to Mississippi), much to the anger and chagrin of her parents.
A subplot deals with Jerry Lee's relationship with another cousin, (now-televangelist) Jimmy Swaggart (Alec Baldwin), who, during this period, was a struggling Pentecostal preacher. Jimmy's career kept him in constant conflict with his cousin's wild rock and roll career and brings out some uncomfortable exchanges between the two. The now-financially successful Jerry Lee buys a new car and gives it to his cousin, and when Jimmy praises the Lord for the gift, Jerry Lee replies, "Don't thank Jesus, thank Jerry Lee Lewis!"
While Jerry Lee is touring in England 1958, a British reporter discovers he is married to his teenage cousin. Jerry Lee is then condemned as a child molester and a pervert by the public. As a result, his British tour is cancelled and he is deported from England. But it does not diminish Jerry Lee's confidence that his career will continue. However, the scandal follows him back to the States.
Jerry Lee begins drinking heavily when record sales and concert attendances are significantly down. He is furious when requested to print a public apology in Billboard and becomes increasingly abusive toward Myra. It was during one of these abusive episodes that Myra informs Jerry Lee that she is pregnant, and he collapses into Myra's arms, crying hysterically.
Jerry Lee and Myra attend a church service conducted by Swaggart. When Jimmy offers one more chance to become saved and get right with God, Jerry Lee again refuses, declaring, "If I'm going to hell, I'm going there playing the piano!" The caption preceding the closing credits reads, "Jerry Lee Lewis is playing his heart out somewhere in America tonight."
The story was co-written by Myra Gail Lewis (her autobiography Great Balls of Fire!), the former wife of Jerry Lee Lewis, with Murray Silver. Despite this, co-writer Silver was upset by the lack of accuracy in the film, claiming it was "phoney". Director Jim McBride admitted that it was never his intention to tie his film to the facts, and stated "This movie does not represent itself in any way to be a historical documentary. We use the book as a jumping-off point."
Lewis has openly stated that he hates the film and the book it was based on. Lewis did, however, praise Quaid's portrayal of him in the film, saying "he really pulled it off". Quaid even learned to play "Lewis-style" piano for the role.
This was the final film of character actor Trey Wilson. He died at age forty from a cerebral hemorrhage in January 1989, prior to the film's release.
The film was shot on location in Marion, Arkansas, Memphis, Tennessee, and West Memphis, Arkansas.
Roger Ebert, film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, did not like the film because of its screenplay, and wrote, "This is a simpleminded rock 'n' roll history in which the pleasures are many and the troubles are few. Lewis, played by Dennis Quaid as a grinning simpleton with a crazy streak and a manic piano style, climbs the same career ladder as many of the stars of musical biographies, but he does it with lightning speed." Ebert also said that Quaid did a nice job of reproducing Lewis' stage persona.
Critic Caryn James wrote that the film portrays the fun side of rock and roll, and wrote, "Jim McBride's film is a compressed, cleaned-up version of the Jerry Lee Lewis story, but it re-creates the soul-shaking, brain-rattling fun of rock-and-roll. It also captures, perhaps for the first time on film, something of the sexual aura of rock-and-roll at its birth." Yet, she added that anyone looking for a true sense of music history will be let down by the film.
The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 63% of critics gave the film a positive review, based on 24 reviews.Young Artist Awards: Young Artist Award; Best Young Actress Starring in a Motion Picture, Winona Ryder; 1990.
The film opened in wide release in the United States on June 30, 1989. The box-office receipts were poor. The first week's gross were $3,807,986 and the total receipts for the two-week run were $13,691,550. The film was in wide release for ten days. In its widest release the film was featured in 1,417 theaters across the country.
An original motion picture soundtrack was released by the producers on the Polydor Records label on June 8, 1989. Lewis re-recorded his music from the 1950s for the soundtrack with the title track "Great Balls of Fire," "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and "That Lucky Old Sun." The soundtrack contains 12 tracks. A music video of the song "Great Balls of Fire", with Quaid and Lewis playing the piano and containing snippets of scenes from the film, was featured on the original VHS video release preceding the film. This re-recorded version was also featured in the 1993 film adaptation of the Stephen King novel, Needful Things, where the character Hugh Priest (Duncan Fraser) is reminiscing about his youth as a teenager in the 1950's after trying on a jacket that looks like the one he had when he was younger. "Lewis Boogie" is also in the film during the closing credits but does not appear on the soundtrack album.CD track listing
- "Great Balls of Fire"
- "High School Confidential"
- "Big Legged Woman" - Booker T. Laury
- "I'm on Fire"
- "Rocket 88" - Jackie Brenston And The Delta Cats
- "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On"
- "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" - Valerie Wellington
- "Crazy Arms" - Jerry Lee Lewis/Dennis Quaid
- "Wild One"
- "That Lucky Old Sun"
- "Great Balls of Fire" (Original Version)
The title track of "Great Balls Of Fire" was released as a single on 7" vinyl and CD format with either 2 or 3-tracks in various countries such as the US, UK, Netherlands, Japan and Germany with the B-side being "Breathless" or "Crazy Arms".
Great Balls of Fire! was released to DVD by MGM Home Entertainment on April 1, 2003 as a Region 1 widescreen DVD.