Sunday, March 18, 2018

GREAT BALLS OF FIRE (1989) (Olive Blu-ray Review)

GREAT BALLS OF FIRE (1989) 

Label: Olive Films
Duration: 108 Minutes 
Region Code: A
Rating: PG-13
Audio: English DTS-HD MA Stereo 2.0 with Optional English Subtitles 
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.85:1) 
Director: Jim McBride
Cast: Alec Baldwin, Dennis Quaid, Trey Wilson, Winona Ryder

This biopic of wild man rocker Jerry Lee Lewis documents the singer's early career,  as played by Dennis Quaid (Jaws 3-D) the pic is pretty glossy and one dimensional but it does showcase the piano-rocker's exquisite pumping piano sound and Quaid is actually pretty damn good as the piano-man, he's got his sexual energy and charm down pat, including his goofy faces and manic stage presence. Then we have Winona Ryder (Beeteljuice) as his enraptured teenage cousin Myra Gale Brown, and yes, they do end up married, which is a stone-cold truth, and while the movie seems to be taking liberties with the truth to a degree there's no denying that Jerry Lee married his then thirteen year-old cousin, which just makes Lewis all sorts of creepy. The revelation is still a shocker today, but back in the 50's it was a bombshell, inspiring the whole of the country of England ( and the U.S.) to turn their back on him, throwing his burgeoning career straight into the toilet pretty much overnight. 

Aside from the capable presence of Ryder and Quaid we have Trey Wilson (Raising Arizona) and Stephen Tobolowsky (Groundhog's Day) as the founders of Sun Records, a small (now legendary) label who signed Jerry Lee Lewis and started up his career shortly after he cut his first demo at the studio. The label was still smarting from recently having sold off Elvis' contract for the paltry sum of thirty-thousand dollars, they acted quickly to exploit Jerry Lee's raucous rock n' roll piano sound which becomes all the rage on the radio. Alec Baldwin shows up as Jerry's cousin Jimmy Swaggart, who tries to steer his cousin away from the influence of the devil's music, rock n' roll. Swaggart himself would become something of an infamous figure himself in the 80's when his money-grubbing Evangelical ministry was brought down by the revelation that he fornicated with a New Orleans' hooker, I love it when the pious are brought down by their own hypocrisy 

The film glosses over a lot of the finite details of the story, but what it gets right are the incendiary live performances and huge ego of the star, as I've already said I think Quaid really nailed it, aside from some questionable lip-syncing from time to time. It's sort of a brave performance playing a lusty child-bride fornicator, but he goes for it with a lot of bravado, and somehow doesn't come off too awful though that aspect of his life certainly is reprehensible. More reprehensible perhaps are the parents of Myra Gale Brown, especially the father who was Jerry Lee's cousin and the bass player in his band. For starters they don't see the alarming chemistry between the kin, though to be fair her father does after Lee with a pistol at one point, but when the cash starts rolling in they just go along with it! 

The film has some great performances of Quaid as Jerry Lee Lewis setting his piano on fire in a successful attempt to upstage the legendary Chuck Berry during a concert, plus a sultry roadhouse show with a lusty group becoming entranced by the piano-pounder, it's good stuff. My favorite aspects of the film are the burgeoning Memphis music scene, Jerry Lee cutting his first record at Sun Records, meeting Elvis, I love all that scene-type stuff.   

The film  was based on a biography by Myra Lewis, so there's some authenticity to it but it seems that director/co-screenwriter Jim McBride took some liberties with the story, while rooted in reality there's clearly some creative license in evidence. Notably Jerry Lee Lewis re-recorded a few of his best known tunes from inclusion in the film, including "Great Balls of Fire", "High School Confidential", "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On", "Breathless", "Crazy Arms and more. They sound great but lack the rollicking lo-fi venom of the original Sun Records recordings in my opinion, but I am sure these more refined songs  probably went over a bit better with the masses who went and saw it at the cinema. 

This was movie I watched many times on cable in the 90's, it was my introduction tot he music of Jerry Lee Lewis, and I don't quite love the way I used to, there's no denying the power of that wild man's rockin' piano sound, too bad he fucked it up by buggering his own cousin. 

Audio/Video: Great Balls of Fire (12989) arrives on Blu-ray from Olive Films in  1080p HD widescreen framed in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, it looks a bit dated but it looks solid enough for a catalog title, the image is a bit soft and lack crispness, but the grain is adequately managed and colors look natural. The lone audio options is an English DTS_HD MA 2.0 Stereo track, it's not robust but does the job, the Jerry Lee Lewis tunes sound great as does additional soundtrack contributions, including  "Rocket 88" from Jackie Brenston and The Delta Cats. This is a bare-bones release but offers optional English subtitles are provided. 

The single-disc Blu-ray comes housed in a standard Blu-ray keepcase with a one-sided sleeve of artwork, I find the Olive Films style a bit hit and miss, it's not bad in that it's easily identifiable as an Olive Films release, but your mileage will vary based on your appreciation of the artwork-style, this one reminded of the 1950's style typography used on vintage concert posters of the era which is appropriate. The disc itself featuring an orange background with the same logo-font as the artwork.   

This biographical film isn't exactly deep in it's portrayal of the rock n' roll wild man, it paints in broad strokes and doesn't dwell overly long on the incestuous teen-bride stuff, but it does manage to get across the man's persona and the music shines through. Glad to this get a Blu-ray finally, surprised it took so long. 

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