When Dennis Quaid – all duded out and blonded up as Jerry Lee Lewis – swaggers to the stage to pump a piano and sing Whole Lotta Shakin Going On, Breathless, Wild One, Crazy Arms or the incomparable title song, this movie can shake your nerves, rattle your brain and at the very least make you feel like dancing.
Jerry Lee recorded new versions of his 1950s hits for Quaid to lip-sync (which Quaid does expertly) and the Killer had rarely thundered with more thrilling ferocity.
Too bad the movie that contains these killer sounds never rises above a whimper.
Director Jim McBride and associate producer Jack Baran have adapted their lightweight screenplay from a substantially grittier 1982 book by Murray Silver and Myra Gale Brown.
Myra (played in the film by Wynona Ryder) is the second cousin Jerry Lee married when she was thirteen and he hadn’t yet bothered to divorce his second wife.
The movie ends two years later, with Lewis a has-been at 23, his career sandbagged by the media scandal over his marriage. His subsequent problems with women, brawls, booze and drugs, the hypocrisy of his preacher cousin, Jimmy Swaggart (Alec Baldwin), and the mysterious death of his fifth wife do not figure in the film.
But even an early film bio should provide insights into how a God-fearing kid from Ferriday, Louisiana, became one of the sexiest, scariest figures of rock legend.
Instead, McBride and Baran offer a candy-coated gloss on a combustible career, and Quaid is rarely permitted to cut deeper than a cunning nightclub impersonation.
The movie mostly dodges the Killer’s dark side. We’re told that lots of folks back home married young; that Jerry Lee really loved Myra; that maybe Myra wasn’t really a virgin.
In 1957, the legal age for marriage in Mississippi was 14 for men and 12 for women, though it was revised upwards by a law passed that year. This particular marriage – Lewis’s third despite his own still-tender years – was illegal on grounds of bigamy. Unfortunately, the real story gets a lot darker than the film is prepared to admit.
After the Myra story broke, Lewis was reduced to playing dives. But this film ends with a full-scale production number. There’s also a photo of a grinning Jerry Lee and Myra with their infant son, circa 1959, that suggests everyone lived happily ever after.
Ha! Myra wrote of two people haunted by demons, but McBride’s movie plays like Bye Bye Birdie.
If you’re determined to make a fun, feel-good movie, a marriage between a manipulative bigamist and a terrified minor that spirals off into alcoholism, violence and ruination may not be the ideal subject matter. Even if the music is really, really good.
Jerry Lee Lewis
Myra Gale Brown
James Van Eaton