Great Balls of Fire!

Great Balls of Fire! is a 1989 motion picture loosely based on pioneering rock and roll star Jerry Lee Lewis. Several scenes of Great Balls of Fire! were filmed on location in the Arkansas towns of Marion (Crittenden County) and West Memphis (Crittenden County), with other filming taking place in nearby Memphis, Tennessee. It starred Dennis Quaid as Lewis, Winona Ryder as the thirteen-year-old cousin whom he married, and Alec Baldwin as another cousin, televangelist Jimmy Swaggart.

The 108-minute film was based on a book by Myra Brown Lewis and was directed by Jim McBride. It follows Jerry Lee Lewis’s early career in 1956 through 1959 as he rose to stardom. A pivotal plot point is his controversial marriage to his cousin Myra, which led to criticism and a setback in his career.

The film also featured Arkansas native Lisa Blount as Lois Brown, the mother of Lewis’s young bride. Other notable figures from the early days of rock and roll who are portrayed in the film include Trey Wilson as Sam Phillips, Robert Lesser as Alan Freed, and Michael St. Gerard as Elvis Presley.

According to the Arkansas Film Commission, Great Balls of Fire! was shot on location in Arkansas, with the house used to portray Jerry Lee Lewis’s childhood home being located at 93 Military Road in Marion. The scenes featuring singing at a church were shot in the Blessings Through Faith Temple Congregation Church off U.S. 70 in West Memphis.

The film offers a look at Lewis’s early life. He was born in Ferriday, Louisiana, in 1935. His parents mortgaged their farm to purchase his first piano, which Lewis learned to play in two weeks when he was about eight years old. With his family, Lewis attended the local Assembly of God church, where he absorbed exultant spiritual music. Growing up, he regularly snuck into a local African-American “juke joint,” to hear bluesmen like B. B. King. On those forays, Lewis was often accompanied by his cousin Jimmy Swaggart and another cousin, future country music star Mickey Gilley.

By the time Lewis left high school, he was married and a father. He attended Southwestern Bible Institute (Assemblies of God) in Waxahachie, Texas, but was expelled after three months when he played a boogie-woogie version of a hymn for morning assembly.

In 1956, when Lewis was twenty-one, he read a story about musician Elvis Presley, who was native of Tupelo, Mississippi, and had moved with his family to Memphis, connecting with Sam Phillips at Sun Records. Although Lewis played piano, not guitar as was common among early rock and rollers, he made his way to Memphis, too, recording “Crazy Arms” for Sun and scoring a modest regional hit. His next Sun record, “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On,” was a hit. He followed that with another hit, “Great Balls of Fire.”

Some said he was on the way to unseating Elvis Presley as the leading figure in rock and roll until the twenty-two-year-old Lewis married his young cousin (his third marriage), generating bad publicity and causing his popularity to plummet. The movie follows Lewis’s path through those early years and, beyond the issue of his marriage and controversial reputation, his renewed ascendance.

In the movie, thirty-four-year-old Dennis Quaid was playing Jerry Lee Lewis in his early twenties. At one point, impressed by Quaid’s interpretation of his music, Lewis proposed that he do half the songs and Quaid the other half. However, Quaid heard Lewis’s re-recordings of his original hits and wanted all piano and vocals to be performed by Lewis and lip-synched by Quaid.

The hands appearing in Lewis’s piano-playing scenes in Great Balls of Fire belong to Jason Donald Williams, a native of El Dorado (Union County). Performing under the name of Jason D. Williams, the singer/pianist is often compared to Jerry Lee Lewis in looks, musical performance, dynamic piano-playing, and on-stage antics. Williams also taught Quaid how to play a few sections of the songs used in the movie.

When the film was released in 1989, it was accompanied by a music video of the song “Great Balls of Fire” containing quick cuts from the movie and shots of both Lewis and Quaid playing the piano. The video was featured on the VHS release of the film. In addition to “Great Balls of Fire,” songs featured in the movie include “Breathless,” “Crazy Arms,” “High School Confidential,” “I’m on Fire,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” and “Wild One.”

The movie received mixed reviews, including one by Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, who called it “simpleminded rock ‘n’ roll history” but praised Quaid for reproducing Lewis’s stage persona. The film was in wide release for only ten days, with receipts for the two-week run less than $14 million. At the 1990 Young Artist Awards, Winona Ryder won Best Young Actress Starring in a Motion Picture.

For additional information:
Great Balls of Fire (1988).” (accessed October 5, 2020).

Great Balls of Fire!” Internet Movie Database. (accessed October 5, 2020).

Great Balls of Fire.” Roger Ebert Movie Reviews. (accessed October 5, 2020)

Nancy Hendricks
Garland County Historical Society


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