AFI Catalog of Feature Films
Movie Detail
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Great Balls of Fire!
Director: Jim McBride (Dir)
Release Date:   30 Jun 1989
Premiere Information:   Premiere in New York: 26 Jun 1989 at the Ziegfeld Theater; Los Angeles and New York openings: 30 Jun 1989
Production Date:   31 Oct 1988--early Feb 1989 in Memphis, TN; Louisiana; Arkansas; and London, England
Duration (in mins):   108
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Cast:   Dennis Quaid (Jerry Lee Lewis)  
    Winona Ryder (Myra Gale Lewis [/Myra Gale Brown])  
    Alec Baldwin (Jimmy Swaggart)  
    Lisa Blount (Lois Brown)  
    Trey Wilson (Sam Phillips)  
    John Doe (J. W. Brown)  
    Stephen Tobolowsky (Jud Phillips)  
    Joe Bob Briggs (Dewey "Daddy-O" Phillips) as
    Steve Allen (Steve Allen)  
    Joshua Sheffield (Rusty Brown)  
    Mojo Nixon (James Van Eaton)  
    Jimmie Vaughan (Roland Janes)  
    David Ferguson (Jack Clement)  
    Robert Lesser (Alan Freed)  
    Lisa Jane Persky (Babe)  
    Paula Person (Sam's secretary)  
    Valerie Wellington (Big Maybelle)  
    Booker T. Laury (Piano Slim)  
    Michael St. Gerard (Elvis [Presley])  
    Carol Russell (Mamie Lewis)  
    Crystal Robbins (Frankie Jean)  
    Tav Falco (New bass player)  
    Ryan Rushton (Young Jimmy)  
    Bert Dedman (Young Jerry)  
    David Penhale (Reporter #1 )  
    Carl Bogan (Reporter #2)  
    Richard Crowe (Reporter #3)  
    Melisa J. Levine (Kreme Cup girl)  
    Cassie Pollard (Kreme Cup girl)  
    Mary Yeargin (Kreme Cup girl)  
    Bruce Stuart (Bank teller)  
    W. W. Painter (Onlooker)  
    Mark Johnson (Sheriff)  
    Jody Lynne (Party doll)  
    Joseph Woodward, Jr. (Wedding preacher)  
    Linn Sitler (Realty agent)  
    Ashley Paige Cook (Mona)  
    Sara Van Horn (Minnie Belle)  
    Juliette Claire Spirson (Lewis infant)  
    John Mulrooney (Talk show host)  
    Peter Cook (First English reporter)  
    Kim Smith (Second English reporter)  
    David Sibley (Third English reporter)  
    Jamila Massey (Bystander)  
    Ryan Ward (Heckler #1)  
    Stephen O'Donnell (Heckler #2)  
    Bejay Baddin (Teenage girl #1)  
    Kelly Marcel (Teenage girl #2)  
    Julie Balloo (Female fan)  
    Ruth Kettlewell (Dowager)  
    John Tordoff (Cockney porter)  
  Haney's Big House dancers: Keith McDaniel    
    Stephanie Pope    
    Lorraine Fields    
    Rufus Thomas    
  [and] Maurice Miller    
  Rebel Room dancers: Susan Lonergan    
    Bonnie Beutler    
    Chris Solari    
  [and] Snowy Winters    
    Priscilla Harris (Honky-tonk angel)  

Summary: In 1944 Ferriday, Louisiana, young Jerry Lee Lewis and his cousin, Jimmy Lee Swaggart, spy on a nightclub in the African American section of town. While Jerry Lee is mesmerized by the piano player and provocative dancers on the dance floor, Jimmy warns they are listening to the “devil’s music” and runs away. Years later, Jerry Lee plays piano in the living room of his cousin J.W. Brown in Memphis, Tennessee. J.W.’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Myra Gale Brown, returns home from school and is surprised to find Jerry Lee. Although she does not remember meeting him as a child, Myra knows of Jerry Lee’s reputation as a “wild one.” Myra’s mother, Lois, tells her daughter that Jerry Lee is married, but Jerry Lee corrects Lois, explaining that his second marriage was illegitimate and he is now a single man. Jerry Lee takes J.W., who plays the bass, to Sun Records recording studio to meet Sam Phillips, the music producer who discovered Elvis Presley. However, Phillips is not there, and a Sun employee tells Jerry Lee that he will not succeed as a piano player because young girls want to see performers wiggle around onstage. Days later, Sam Phillips listens to Jerry Lee and J.W.’s recording of the song “Crazy Arms” and immediately takes the record to a local radio station. Jerry Lee rejoices as he hears the song on his car radio, and J.W. celebrates with Lois and Myra at home. Sam has big plans for Jerry Lee, and his brother and business partner, Judd Phillips, presents the performer with a contract that J.W. peruses, but Jerry Lee insists on signing right away. In 1956, Jerry Lee returns home to Ferriday for Christmas and hands out his record to family members. Jimmy, now a preacher, plays piano with him and tries to persuade his cousin to use his talents for the glory of God, giving Jerry Lee a religious coin to remind him of the choice he must make between righteousness and sin. Jerry Lee sneaks away to the African American nightclub he spied on as a child and joins the piano player during a rousing performance of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.” He later persuades Sam to let him record the song, but Sam resists, claiming they lyrics are too suggestive. At a bar called the Rebel Room, Jerry Lee and his band play to an indifferent crowd. J.W. threatens to quit but Jerry promises him a fifty-fifty partnership if he stays. They play “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” and the bar patrons finally take notice and dance to the music. Judd Phillips witnesses the moment, and the band is permitted to record the single, which is soon banned by several radio stations. Judd convinces Sam to send Jerry Lee’s band to New York, where Jerry Lee demonstrates his distinctive style of dancing behind the piano as he performs on The Steve Allen Show on the NBC Television Network. Arriving at the Memphis airport, Jerry Lee is presented with a $40,000 royalty check and greeted by screaming fans. Although J.W. wants Jerry Lee to move into his own place, Sam encourages the bass player to keep Jerry Lee at home so he can keep watch over the notorious ladies’ man. J.W. becomes suspicious as Jerry Lee and Myra grow closer, and one night, Jerry Lee kisses the girl when he takes her out for ice cream. Cashing his $40,000 check at the bank, Jerry Lee splits the royalties with J.W. as promised and the cousins buy new cars. Driving through town, Jerry Lee spots Jimmy preaching on a street corner and stops. Jimmy reminds him of a promise he once made to follow the Lord’s path if he was given a hit record. Jerry Lee responds by handing over his new car to Jimmy, who thanks Jesus Christ for the gift. Jerry Lee urges him to thank "Jerry Lee Lewis" instead. Jerry Lee records a new single, “Great Balls of Fire,” which climbs to the number one spot on Billboard magazine’s country singles chart. During a performance at a local fair, Jerry Lee mouths the words “I love you” to Myra, and she swoons. Soon after, at the Paramount theater, Jerry Lee and his band play to an adoring crowd. Jerry Lee props one foot on the piano as he plays, then sets the instrument on fire during “Great Balls of Fire.” When the band goes on tour, Lois and J.W. take notice as Jerry Lee calls Myra several times a day. They threaten to send her to boarding school if the relationship continues, but when he returns to Memphis, Jerry Lee presents Myra with a marriage license and drives her to Mississippi for an impromptu wedding. Although she asks Jerry Lee to wait a few years, the thirteen-year-old complies once they reach the chapel. Back in Memphis, Myra cries as she packs her dollhouse and bids goodbye to her parents. J.W. slaps his belt against her bed in anger, as Jerry Lee shouts at him from the front porch, persuading him to stay with the band because they stand to make a lot of money. They record another single, “Breathless,” as Jerry Lee’s latest record, “High School Confidential” continues to climb the charts. In the bedroom of their new home, Jerry Lee becomes angry when he and Myra have sex for the first time, suspecting that she is not a virgin because of the way she moves. He leaves the girl in tears, but returns home later and promises he does not care about her past. Jerry Lee’s popularity soars in England, and he insists on taking Myra with him on the band’s British tour, despite Sam and Judd’s warnings that the British people will not approve of his young bride. As soon as they arrive, Myra identifies herself to a reporter, and Jerry Lee lies that she is fifteen years old. However, journalists discover that she is his thirteen-year-old cousin, and the announcement sparks a massive scandal. Jerry Lee’s British fans turn against him, and the tour is canceled. Back in Memphis, Jerry Lee’s American fans also reject him, and “High School Confidential” drops off the charts. Sam and Judd suggest he take out a full-page advertisement in Billboard to apologize to his fans, but Jerry Lee refuses, reminding them that he makes $10,000 per night. Sam counters that no one is booking him anymore. The band reverts to playing smaller venues with dwindling crowds, and Jerry Lee begins drinking too much, taking drugs, and cheating on his young wife. One night, he returns home drunk and hits Myra. The next morning, she informs him she is pregnant. They go to a church service led by Jimmy, who summons the couple to the pulpit, but only Myra accepts Jesus Christ as her savior. Jerry Lee returns the religious coin Jimmy gave him and says he if he is going to hell, then he will go there playing piano. Myra chases Jerry Lee out of the church and declares her love for him.  

Production Company: Orion Pictures  
Production Text: An Orion Pictures Release
An Adam Fields Production
A Film By Jim McBride
Distribution Company: Orion Pictures  
Director: Jim McBride (Dir)
  Art Levinson (Unit prod mgr)
  Jack Baran (1st asst dir)
  Michelle Solotar (2d asst dir)
  Dan Suhart (2d asst dir)
  Tim Board (Asst dir)
  Kathy Sykes (Prod mgr, British crew)
  John Bernard (1st asst dir, British crew)
  Lee Cleary (2d asst dir, British crew)
Producer: Adam Fields (Prod)
  Jack Baran (Assoc prod)
  Karen Penhale (Assoc prod)
  Michael Grais (Exec prod)
  Mark Victor (Exec prod)
  Art Levinson (Co-exec prod)
Writer: Jack Baran (Scr)
  Jim McBride (Scr)
Photography: Affonso Beato (Dir of photog)
  Michael Levine (Cam op)
  Ted Hauser (1st asst cam)
  Ademir Silva (2d asst cam)
  Jan Sears (Cam loader)
  Lorraine Gray (Video assist)
  Bob Marshak (Still photog)
  Jack English (Gaffer)
  James Babineaux (Best boy)
  Gregory Wardell (Elec)
  Christopher Lyons (Elec)
  Robert Bruce (Elec)
  Robert O'Bleness (Elec)
  Tom Clark (Elec)
  Tracy Neftzger (Key grip)
  Paul Iski (Best boy)
  David Nims (Dolly grip)
  Donald Simandl (Grip)
  Paul Wilkowsky (Grip)
  Howard Fox (Grip)
  Martin Kenzie (Focus puller, British crew)
  Chris Warren (Video coord, British crew)
  Keith Hamshere (Still photog, British crew)
  Peter Bloor (Gaffer, British crew)
  Graham Hall (Clapper loader, British crew)
  Kenny Atherfold (Grip, British crew)
Art Direction: David Nichols (Prod des)
  Jon Spirson (Art dir)
  Dawn Snyder (Asst art dir)
  Margueriet Condon (Art dept coord)
  Tim Hutchinson (Art dir, British crew)
Film Editor: Lisa Day (Ed)
  Pembroke Herring (Ed)
  Bert Lovitt (Ed)
  Fred Peterson (1st asst ed)
  Danny Retz (Asst ed)
  Russell Eaton (Apprentice ed)
  Diane Witter (Apprentice ed)
  Gary Burritt (Negative cutter)
Set Decoration: Lisa Fischer (Set dec)
  Joel Prihoda (Lead person)
  Laura Settlemeier (2d lead person)
  Chuck Bianchi (Swing gang)
  David Fingerhut (Swing gang)
  Kathleen McKernin (Set des)
  Lauren Polizzi (Set des)
  Kevin Hughes (Prop master)
  Tyler Patton (Asst prop master)
  Scott Ratliff (2d asst props)
  Chip Radaelli (Const coord)
  Jim Barth (Const foreman)
  Barry Altenhoff (Carpenter)
  John Exum (Carpenter)
  Jerry Hamilton (Carpenter)
  Robert Labarreare, II (Carpenter)
  Benjamin Matlock (Carpenter)
  C. Robert Miller (Carpenter)
  Antonio Ortiz (Carpenter)
  Joseph Salazar (Carpenter)
  William R. Scott (Carpenter)
  J. D. Sprayberry (Carpenter)
  John Beauvais (Head painter)
  Lynn Maffesoli (Painter)
  Myles Reed (Painter)
  Mark Ragett (Set dec, British crew)
  Peter Hancock (Prop master, British crew)
Costumes: Tracy Tynan (Cost des)
  Jim Lapidus (Cost supv)
  Lisa Lovaas (Women's costumer)
  Bernie White (Men's costumer)
  Debbie Hall (Asst costumer)
  Mary Kay Stolz (Dennis Quaid's suits tailored by)
  Deedee Sellner (Seamstress)
  John Davis (Ward asst)
  Lauren Roman (Ward asst)
  Rosemary Burrows (Cost supv, British crew)
  Colin Wilson (Ward master, British crew)
  Rosemary Worth (Ward mistress, British crew)
Music: The Killer Himself (Piano and vocals for Jerry Lee Lewis performed by)
  Joe Mulherin (Loc mus supv)
  Billy Swan (Mus coach)
  Jim Ehinger (Piano coach)
  Brad Dechter (Addl orch by)
  Michael Mason (Synclavier programming by)
  Rik Pekkonen (Rec eng)
  Bob Schaper (Supv mus eng)
  Scott Grusin (Supv mus ed)
  Sally Boldt (Mus ed)
  Tony Kadell (Asst mus ed)
  Coltharp Piano World (Pianos by)
  B. J. Ramey (Pianos by)
  Gay DiFusco (Mus clearance assistance by)
  Fricon Entertainment (Mus clearance assistance by)
  Ocean Way Recording (Mus rec at)
  Sunset Sound (Mus mixed at)
  Jack Baran (Source mus, British crew)
  Jim McBride (Source mus, British crew)
Sound: Petur Hliddal (Sd mixer)
  Earl Sampson (Boom op)
  Kevin Patterson (Playback op)
  Kifer Donahoo (Addl playback)
  Chet Leonard (Cableman)
  Julia Evershade (Supv sd ed)
  Kimberly Harris (Sd ed)
  David Stone (Sd ed)
  Gary Wright (Sd ed)
  James Methany (Sd ed)
  Mark Pappas (Foley ed)
  Butch Wolf (Foley ed)
  Thomas G. Whiting (ADR ed)
  Paul Warschilka (Asst sd ed)
  Lisa M. Varney (Asst sd ed)
  Kevin Bartnof (Foley artist)
  Ellen Heuer (Foley artist)
  John Fasal (Addl rec)
  Steve Maslow (Re-rec)
  Elliot Tyson (Re-rec)
  Rick Klein (Re-rec)
  Gary Ritchie (Rec)
  Mike Haney (Rec)
  TAJ (Foley by)
  Barbara Harris (ADR by)
  David Stephenson (Sd mixer, British crew)
  Gerry Bates (Boom swinger, British crew)
Special Effects: Phil Corey (Spec eff)
  Lorraine Bubar (Anim eff)
  Illusion Arts, Inc. (Matte shot by)
  Cinema Research Corporation (Titles & opticals)
  Neal Thompson (Main title des)
  George Gibbs (Spec eff, British crew)
Dance: Bill Landrum (Choreog)
  Jacqui Landrum (Choreog)
Make Up: Richard Arrington (Key makeup artist)
  Bonita De Haven (Makeup artist)
  Michelle Vittone (Makeup artist)
  Gloria Belz (Extras makeup)
  Enid Arias (Hairstylist)
  Kaye Pownall (Hairstylist)
  Wayne Coker (Hairstylist)
  Naomi Donne (Makeup artist, British crew)
  Dinah Holt (Makeup artist, British crew)
  Tricia Cameron (Hairdresser, British crew)
  Jan Archibald (Hairdresser, British crew)
  Joan Carpenter (Hairdresser, British crew)
Production Misc: Judith Holstra (Casting)
  Karen Penhale (Prod coord/Post prod supv)
  Benita Brazier (Scr supv)
  Ricki L. Stein (Auditor)
  Lisa G. Shillingburg (Asst to Mr. Fields)
  Sue Bea Belknap (Asst to Mr. McBride)
  Beth Bernstein (Asst coord)
  Anne Moosman (Asst accountant)
  Jamaine Bell (Office prod asst)
  Chuck Montgomery (Office prod asst)
  Phil Elins (Set prod asst)
  Chris Bromley (Set prod asst)
  Stuart Posner (L.A. office asst)
  John Kivlen (L.A. office asst)
  Ivy Weiss (Extras casting)
  Susan Peck (Casting asst, L.A.)
  Jeffrey Posson (Casting asst, Memphis)
  Stacy Robison (Extras casting asst)
  Laurie Upchurch (Extras casting asst)
  Cynthia Armstrong (Extras casting asst)
  Ross Fanger (Loc mgr)
  Lida Burris (Asst loc mgr)
  Jerry Lee Lewis (Prod adv)
  Jerry Schilling (Exec tech adv)
  J. W. Whitten (Tech adv)
  Tom Gray (Unit pub)
  Irene Brafstein (Tutor)
  Greg Holden (Asst to Dennis Quaid)
  Dan Appleby (AFI intern)
  Ann Brown (Set nurse)
  Kathy Katz (Craft service)
  Jere Barrier (Craft service)
  Gala Catering, Inc. (Catering)
  Fred Gabrielli (Catering)
  Maggie Roiphe (Financial representative)
  Travel Corps (Travel arrangements by)
  Dennis Milliken (Transportation coord)
  Benson Jones (Transportation capt)
  Hall Prewitt (Picture car coord)
  Richard Bell (Addl picture cars by)
  Merlon Adams (Driver)
  Lindsay Alexandre (Driver)
  Kip Bartlett (Driver)
  Laura Brown (Driver)
  Charley Burnham (Driver)
  Michael Cain (Driver)
  Wayne Elliott (Driver)
  Bob Firneno (Driver)
  Frank Firneno (Driver)
  Wayne French (Driver)
  John Gibson (Driver)
  Thomas Gilbert (Driver)
  James Humphreys (Driver)
  James Johnson (Driver)
  Jerry Morrow (Driver)
  Nick Pastrano (Driver)
  Mike Patrick (Driver)
  Poland Perkins (Driver)
  Scott Reilly (Driver)
  Don Schisler (Driver)
  Jim Walker (Driver)
  Nigel Wooll (London prod consultant, British crew)
  Carol Regan (Prod coord, British crew)
  Howard Gibbins (Loc mgr, British crew)
  Gilly Gutteridge (Loc mgr, British crew)
  Richard Turner (Prod accountant, British crew)
  Sally Jones (Scr supv, British crew)
  Davis & Zimmerman (Casting, British crew)
  One Off Films Ltd. (London prod services, British crew)
Stand In: Steve Davison (Stunt coord)
  Janet Brady (Stunts)
  Dick Ziker (Stunts)
  Scott Wilder (Stunts)
  Tim Davison (Stunts)
  Marguerite Happy (Stunts)
  Steve Chambers (Stunts)
  William H. Burton (Stunts)
  Buddy Joe Hooker (Stunts)
  Jeff Dixon (Stand-in)
  David Nall (Stand-in)
  Lynn Williams (Stand-in)
Color Personnel: DeLuxe® (Col by)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Country: United States
Language: English

Songs: "Crazy Arms," performed by Jerry Lee Lewis, written by Ralph Mooney & Charles Seals; "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," performed by Jerry Lee Lewis, written by David Williams & Sunny David; "I'm Throwing Rice At The Girl That I Love," performed by Jerry Lee Lewis, written by Eddy Arnold, Edward Nelson, Steve Nelson; "Great Balls of Fire," performed by Jerry Lee Lewis, written by Otis Blackwell & Jack Hammer; "High School Confidential," performed by Jerry Lee Lewis, written by Ron Hargrave & Jerry Lee Lewis; "Breathless," performed by Jerry Lee Lewis, written by Otis Blackwell; "I'm On Fire," performed by Jerry Lee Lewis, written by Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein, Richard Gottehrer; "That Lucky Old Sun," performed by Jerry Lee Lewis, written by Haven Gillespie & Beasley Smith; "Real Wild Child (Wild One)," performed by Jerry Lee Lewis, written by Johnny O'Keefe, Johnny Greenan, Dave Owens; "Big Legged Woman," performed by Booker T. Laury, written by James Williams, produced by Billy Swan & Joe Mulherin; "Honey Don't," written & performed by Carl Perkins, courtesy of Sun Records; "Raunchy," performed by Bill Justis, written by Bill Justis & Sidney Manker, courtesy of Sun Records; "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer," performed by Joe Nettles, written by Johnny Marks; "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer," performed by Gene Autry, written by Johnny Marks, courtesy of CBS Records, Music Licensing Department; "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," performed by Valerie Wellington, written by David Williams & Sunny David; "Teddy Bear," performed by Elvis Presley, written by Kal Mann and Bernie Lowe, courtesy of RCA Records; "Lover," performed by Les Paul & Mary Ford, written by Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart (Licensor - Sema Special Products), Capitol Records, Inc.; "As You Desire Me," performed by Bill Doggett, written by Allie Wrubel, courtesy of Gusto Records, Inc.; "Rocket 88," performed by Jackie Brenston, written by Jackie Brenston, courtesy of Sun Records; "Patricia," performed by Perez Prado, written by Damaso Perez Prado, courtesy of RCA Records; "Beat Guitar," performed by The Wailers, written by John Greek & Rick Dangel, courtesy of Golden Crest Industries; "Singing & Swingin' For Me," performed by Billy Boyd's Cowboy Ramblers, written by Al Dexter & James Paris, courtesy of RCA Records; "Happy Organ," performed by Dave "Baby" Cortez, written by Ken Wood, David Clowney & James Kriegsmann, courtesy of Clock Records/Doug Moody Productions; "Tara's Theme," written by Max Steiner; "Last Night," performed by The Mar-Keys, written by C. Axton, J. Smith, F. Newman, C. Moman & G. Caple, courtesy of Atlantic Recording Corp., by arrangement with Warner Special Products.
Composer: Edward Nelson
  Eddy Arnold
  Charles Axton
  Otis Blackwell
  Jackie Brenston
  Gil Caple
  David Clowney
  Rick Dangel
  Sunny David
  Al Dexter
  Bob Feldman
  Haven Gillespie
  Jerry Goldstein
  Richard Gottehrer
  John Greek
  Johnny Greenan
  Jack Hammer
  Ron Hargrave
  Lorenz Hart
  Bill Justis
  James Kriegsmann
  Jerry Lee Lewis
  Bernie Lowe
  Sidney Manker
  Kal Mann
  Johnny Marks
  Chips Moman
  Ralph Mooney
  Steve Nelson
  Floyd Newman
  Johnny O`Keefe
  Dave Owens
  James Paris
  Dámaso Pérez Prado
  Carl Perkins
  Richard Rodgers
  Charles Seals
  Beasley Smith
  Jerald Smith
  Max Steiner
  David Williams
  James Williams
  Ken Wood
  Allie Wrubel
Source Text: Based upon the book Great Balls of Fire: The Uncensored Story of Jerry Lee Lewis by Myra Lewis with Murray Silver (New York, 1982).
Authors: Myra Lewis
  Murray Silver

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number
Orion Pictures Corporation 22/8/1989 dd/mm/yyyy PA423105

PCA NO: 29793
Physical Properties: Sd: Spectral Recording Dolby Stereo SR™ in selected theatres
  Lenses: Lenses and Panaflex Camera by Panavision®

Genre: Biography
Subjects (Major): Cousins
  Rock music and musicians
Subjects (Minor): Adolescents
  African Americans
  Bands (Music)
  Blues music
  Family relationships
  London (England)
  Memphis (TN)
  Record producers
  Romance--Age difference
  Television programs
  Voyages and travel

Note: The following title card precedes the film's title in opening credits: "Ferriday, Louisiana, Christmas - 1944." Preceding the last scene of the film, a photograph of Dennis Quaid as “Jerry Lee Lewis” and Winona Ryder as “Myra Gale Lewis” with a newborn baby is accompanied by the title card: “Steve Allen Lewis was born February 27, 1959.” The last scene portrays Lewis playing to an adoring crowd with superimposed title cards that reads, “Jerry Lee Lewis is playing his heart out somewhere in America tonight,” and, “Piano and vocals for Jerry Lee Lewis performed by The Killer himself.” “The Killer” is a nickname for Lewis briefly referenced in the film.
       After song listings, end credits name Jeff Sydney as the executive in charge for PolyGram Records, Inc. The following statements appear in end credits: “Stock foootage: ‘Cold Turkey’ © 1951 The Walt Disney Company; ‘A Face in the Crowd,’ ‘Rock Rock Rock,’ courtesy of Castle Hill Productions, Inc.; ‘Five,’ courtesy of Columbia Pictures; ‘That Hamilton Woman,’ The Samuel Goldwyn Company; ‘Leave It to Beaver,’ courtesy of Universal City Studios”; and, “Special Thanks to: Jerry Lee Lewis; Sam & Knox Phillips; Kerrie Lewis; David Braun; Robert Hilburn; Gordon Stulberg; Rogers & Cowan; The Tennessee Film, Entertainment and Music Commission, Linn Sitler; The Memphis & Shelby County Film, Tape and Music Commission; The Center for Southern Folklore”; and, "We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of The Estate of Elvis Presley, 'Elvis' and 'Elvis Presley' are registered trademarks of Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc." End credits also include the dedication, “For Trey Wilson, we miss you.” Wilson, the actor who played “Sam Phillips,” died 16 Jan 1989.
       A 20 Oct 1982 DV brief announced that Polygram Pictures optioned Myra Lewis’s autobiographical account of her marriage, Great Balls of Fire: The Uncensored Story of Jerry Lee Lewis. According to a 30 Jun 1989 LAT article, she was paid $100,000 and promised participation on either the writing or casting of the film, although she later complained that she was merely sent a script and informed of the casting of Winona Ryder by producer Adam Fields. Fields, a producer based at Paramount Pictures, reportedly spent two years helping Polygram negotiate the book rights, as stated in a 9 Aug 1985 LAT. A few months after the option was announced, however, a 4 May 1983 Var article stated that ABC Motion Pictures bought the rights from Polygram. ABC slated to develop and fund the production, with Barry Levinson directing and Pierre Cossette producing. Under this arrangement, Polygram would receive a producer’s credit. Jerry Lee Lewis’s friend, actor Gary Sandy of the the television show WKRP in Cincinnati, was mentioned as a frontrunner for the lead role in a Jan 1983 Moviegoer news item.
       A 13 Aug 1983 Billboard item later reported that Mickey Rourke was cast as Jerry Lee Lewis, despite his initial reservations about the project. Rourke reportedly “fell in love” with Lewis after visiting him in Gatlinburg, TN, and planned to spend two months with him in preparation for the Apr 1984 shoot. Filming was delayed to Nov 1984, as stated in a 9 Jun 1984 LAHExam story, which mentioned that Lewis was awaiting a 9 Jul 1984 trial for tax evasion. According to producers Pierre Cossette and Phillip Browning, the script would include Lewis’s rise to fame and the drowning death of his fourth wife in 1982. At the time, Twentieth Century-Fox was on board to distribute, but the studio later dropped out, as did Barry Levinson.
       Rights to Myra Lewis’s book reverted to Polygram after ABC Motion Pictures’ two-and-a-half-year development deal expired. Although ABC did not explain their reason for letting the project go, Rourke was rumored to have been dissatisfied with the script. The story was eventually reduced to an eighteen-month period between 1956 and 1958, when Lewis rose to fame, as noted in an 11 Nov 1988 HR item. Terrence Malick was brought on to write a new script, as reported in a 13 Dec 1987 LAT item, but received no credit in the final film.
       A 17 Jan 1988 Long Beach Press-Telegram article stated that Jim McBride had signed to direct the film for Orion Pictures and was aiming to begin principal photography in mid-May or early Jun 1988, but the start date depended on the availability of Dennis Quaid, who would play Lewis. Quaid and McBride previously worked together on The Big Easy (1986, see entry), and in Jan 1988, Quaid was finishing production on Everybody’s All American (1988, see entry). A decision had not been made about who would perform the vocals for the singing portions of the film, although producer Fields stated that Quaid could sing. The actor was paid $2 million, as noted in 19 Feb 1989 LAT and 30 Jun 1989 Allentown, PA Morning Call articles.
       A 21 Mar 1988 People item reported that Orion wanted to cast actress Holly Hunter opposite Quaid in the film, but the item made no mention of the role which she would play. Hunter did not appear in the film. Photographer William Eggleston appeared as a background actor in a scene at Lewis’s family home in Ferriday, LA, but received no onscreen credit for the role.
       According to production notes in AMPAS library files, Quaid began piano lessons six months prior to production and practiced up to twelve hours per day. Pianos were kept on set, in the actor’s dressing room, and at his rented home in Memphis, TN, during production. Also in preparation for the role, Quaid traveled to Lewis’s ranch in Mississippi and struck up a friendship with the entertainer. Quaid went through Lewis’s old clothes, took a pair of his shoes from the 1950s, and wore them through the last day of the shoot. Quaid and Lewis continued to spend time together throughout filming, and a 12 Oct 1988 LAHExam item noted that the singer accompanied Quaid to Memphis’s Kiva Studios as he recorded vocals to be used in the film. Lewis fought Quaid over the vocals, according to the 30 Jun 1989 Allentown, PA Morning Call, and although Quaid’s contract stipulated that his vocals would be featured, a 27 Dec 1989 USA Today item stated that Lewis ultimately recorded the singing parts after Quaid’s were deemed “untuneful.”
       Principal photography began 31 Oct 1988, as noted in a DV item of the same date. The bulk of filming took place in Memphis, where locations included Graceland, the Skyroom at the Peabody Hotel, Beale Street, Sun Studios, Memphis International Airport, a fairground, a department store, an elementary school, a Little League baseball park, and Lewis’s former home on Diane Drive. As stated in the 11 Nov 1988 HR, the 120-person crew would be comprised of fifty locals. Also, 200 dancers from the area were hired, and 2,000 to 3,000 extras would be recruited for concert scenes. Shooting also took place in Arkansas and Mississippi, where scenes depicting Lewis’s hometown of Ferriday, LA, were shot. The final three weeks of principal photography took place in London, England. London locales included the Hammersmith Odeon theater.
       According to a 17 Jul 1989 People item, the baby grand piano that was set on fire during Lewis’s Paramount Theater performance in the film cost $16,000. A total of eighteen pianos were used in the picture.
       After test audiences disapproved of the film’s ending, a more upbeat ending was shot, according to a 21 May 1989 LAT item. The initial ending showed Lewis “reduced to playing at one of the old honkytonks” where he had started, while the new ending showed him in an auditorium, performing in a celebratory manner.
       A 4 Jun 1989 LAT “Outtakes” column stated that Orion planned to spend over $10 million on prints and advertising, which accounted for more than half of the film’s $16-18 million budget, according to a 14 Aug 1988 LAT brief. Publicity events included the unveiling of Jerry Lee Lewis’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on 13 Jun 1989, a 26 Jun 1989 New York City world premiere at the Ziegfeld Theater, a publicity junket in Memphis for 300 film and music reporters, and a VIP screening in Los Angeles, CA, at the Director’s Guild on 29 Jun 1989. Roughly 1,000 teaser trailers were scheduled to play in theaters according to an 8 Feb 1989 HR “Rambling Reporter” column. In the column, Adam Fields noted that he had to “clear up 30 years of lawsuits and publishing disputes” to make the film, and tackle clearance problems for the songs, only one of which was co-written by Lewis. The producer also stated that in the eight years he had been working on the film, Lewis had married and declared bankruptcy twice, lost a wife and a son, and another one of his sons had been hospitalized with a hole in his stomach.
       The film was initially rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), due to a scene in which thirteen-year-old Myra Gale Lewis loses her virginity to Lewis. However, Orion appealed the decision, and the MPAA re-rated the film PG-13, as reported in a 5 Jun 1989 DV brief.
       In addition to the vocals in the film, Lewis, a “15-year recording veteran with Polygram,” re-recorded new versions of his songs for the soundtrack, which was released by Polygram Records, according to a 25 Apr 1989 HR item. The rerecorded version of “Great Balls of Fire” was released as a single, with an accompanying music video that featured both Lewis and Quaid.
       Critical reception was tepid, and the Sep 1989 Box review stated the film only grossed $10.8 million in three weeks, calling it “an industry-surprising low.” 

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
[Allentown, PA] Morning Call   30 Jun 1989   Section D, p. 1.
Billboard   13 Aug 1983.   
Box Office   Sep 1989.   
Daily Variety   20 Oct 1982.   
Daily Variety   24 Jul 1984.   
Daily Variety   31 Oct 1988.   
Daily Variety   14 Feb 1989.   
Daily Variety   5 Jun 1989   p. 1, 18.
Daily Variety   29 Jun 1989   p. 2, 26.
Hollywood Reporter   11 Dec 1987   p. 3, 114.
Hollywood Reporter   9 Aug 1988.   
Hollywood Reporter   11 Nov 1988   p. 42.
Hollywood Reporter   8 Feb 1989   p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter   25 Apr 1989.   
Hollywood Reporter   29 Jun 1989   p. 4, 23.
LAHExam   9 Jun 1984   Section A, p. 2.
LAHExam   12 Oct 1988.   
Los Angeles Times   9 Aug 1985   Section G, p. 1.
Los Angeles Times   13 Dec 1987   Calendar, p. 120.
Los Angeles Times   14 Aug 1988   Calendar, p. 25.
Los Angeles Times   10 Nov 1988   Calendar, p. 2.
Los Angeles Times   6 Dec 1988   Calendar, p. 2.
Los Angeles Times   19 Feb 1989   Section K, p. 4.
Los Angeles Times   21 May 1989   Calendar, p. 24.
Los Angeles Times   4 Jun 1989   Calendar, p. 24.
Los Angeles Times   30 Jun 1989   p. 1.
Los Angeles Times   30 Jun 1989   Section 5, p. 1.
Los Angeles Times   9 Jul 1989   Calendar, p. 38.
L.B. Press-Telegram   17 Jan 1988.   
Moviegoer   Jan 1983.   
Newsweek   2 Apr 1989.   
New York Times   15 Jan 1989   Section A, p. 16.
New York Times   30 Jun 1989   p. 8.
People   21 Mar 1988.   
People   17 Jul 1989.   
USA Today   27 Dec 1989   Section D, p. 2.
Variety   11 May 1983   p. 4, 48.
Variety   18 Sep 1985.   
Variety   5 Jul 1989   pp. 18-19.

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
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