Jerry Lee Lewis: certifiable icon or rogue caricature? The pianist-vocalist has been characterized as both, perhaps inevitably: he is known as much for his firebrand personality as for his hits. To date, his life has received a remarkably scant amount of serious documentation; the most popular media representation has been the feature film Great Balls of Fire!, starring Dennis Quaid in a forgettable and inadvertently comic performance.
Lewis is ultimately a man of only two things: music and God. I Am What I Am, a documentary originally made in 1987 and re-released on DVD by Kultur/White Star, sets out to document the two forces that continue to drive and constitute 'The Killer'. The documentary is driven in part by live performance clips, in part by interview clips with the man himself and the major personalities that have surrounded him -- Kris Kristofferson, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, in addition to family members such as cousin Jimmy Lee Swaggart. The film is brief -- a breezy 60 minutes -- but sincere in its content, offering a compelling examination of a vital force in rock 'n' roll.
The film quickly establishes Lewis as a highly-regarded and powerful entity in music. It opens with a late-career performance clip of "I Am What I Am" (with Ron Wood in the backing band) split-screened against a parade of adulatory celebrity interviews. The filmmakers, wisely, step back from this bombast and chart his upbringing in the small town of Ferriday, Louisiana. The film relies in equal parts on narration and interview footage to continue mapping Lewis' life. Interviews with figures such as Sam Phillips, Steve Allen and Paul Anka parallel the key stepping stones in his life -- his meeting with Sam Phillips, his first recordings for Sun Records, his tour with Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison; the development of his wild stage persona, his appearance on the Steve Allen show, and his subsequent rise to national success.
Comments by Lewis himself are particularly illuminating, not least because of his relaxed and humorous perspective. Although he clearly struggled through poverty, Lewis' light-hearted recollections make his life colorful and the tone of the film accessible and heartfelt. Period photo stills and stock footage flesh things out, but there are several dramatic reenactments that add little: why is there footage of a boy learning to play the piano when we also see Lewis describing in detail his first -- and only -- piano lesson? Several miscellaneous clips are also interspersed, such as an interview with Lewis and his 13-year old wife, Myra Gale Brown, following the fall-out in the UK press over his marriage to a minor.
The highlights, however, are the relatively complete performance clips that span his entire career, including the legendary Steve Allen Show performance of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On". The Steve Allen performance is exceptional, for it documents Lewis on the cusp of stardom. He is energetic to the point of combustion and hungry for success, but also the experienced performer, conscious of his every movement. He opens his eyes for the camera, bounces his head at the peak of the song, and moves the mic away with timed ease in order to bang out a solo. Steve Allen responds in kind, dancing at the show's closing, signifying the performance as truly landmark. In another late '50s television performance of "Great Balls of Fire", tiny explosions of flames -- superimposed over Lewis' face -- amusingly punctuate the song's choruses.
The documentary is as in-depth as can be expected of a 60-minute film constructed in considerable part of stock footage. It glosses over the '70s and much of the '80s, presumably because of Lewis' relative inactivity and increasing personal problems, particularly substance abuse. Instead of dwelling on media fodder like his accidental shooting of a band-mate, the film succeeds by dealing strictly with music. The essence of the man is understood to be the music, rather than the details of his personal life.
The film has its flaws. The quantity of interviewed subjects is more impressive than the quality of many of their statements; several interviewees offer praise for, but little insight into Lewis. The quality of the filmmaking is also awkward at times. The introduction, for example, cuts quickly from the aforementioned performance footage to news coverage of Lewis' near-fatal 1981 hospitalization. The effect is more confusing than dramatic -- especially if one knows that Lewis is still alive and active in 2004. Finally, the DVD itself is an unremarkable package, containing nothing more that the documentary and chapter selections.
That said, the relatively unedited performance clips make this documentary rare and remarkable. The sincerity and respect that the filmmakers have for their subject is made clear by how the footage remains untouched. They understand that the music says more about Lewis than any celebrity quote.
Lewis lacked the looks of Presley, the enigmatic melodrama of Orbison, and the signature voice of Cash, but he helped kick-start the cultural phenomena of rock 'n' roll. He remains an absolutely phenomenal pianist and a versatile interpreter of songs. While I Am What I Am provides a much-needed overview of Lewis' life, the man himself cuts to the core of his essence when he notes that, in the end, he will only be judged by God. That comment, made with great ease and confidence, illuminates the strength and will of a man whose music helped change the soundscape of the world.