When a documentary, as a passion off the cliff project, is made by a famous filmmaker who usually makes feature films, there is a particular curiosity and excitement to see the angle – and the kind of craft – it will achieve. “Jerry Lee Lewis: A Trouble with the Mind” is the first film directed by Ethan Coen himself. Of course, Ethan has always stood a little in the shadows of his older brother Joel (who has long taken credit for directing the Coen brothers films, even though it was a complicated collaboration). Even though it’s “just” a musical documentary, this is Ethan’s chance to showcase his solo purposes. And he does it the way Ethan Coen does: smart, humble, invisible, but with a kick that sneaks up on you.
Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind is only 73 minutes long, and tells the story of a wonderful rock ‘n’ roll man using almost nothing but old TV footage – shows spanning six decades – and interviews also done primarily for TV, often It was on the popular talk shows of the ’70s and ’80s. Lots of documentaries, especially these days, can amaze you with the density of archival footage poured into them: home movies, photos and diaries, scrapbooks, visual history, and the detailed private lives that have been announced. “Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble with the Mind” is not that kind of movie. Sometimes you’d practically expect it to have a text credit, “Senior Finder: Some dudes are combing clips on YouTube.”
In other words, Ethan Coen never came out to meet a group of people who told him insightful stories about Jerry Lee Lewis. It’s all mostly told tales by Jerry Lee, and a few of them are “original.” You could say that this is an easy, or maybe even lazy, way to make a documentary. However, sometimes it is a relief to break free from talking heads. Ethan Coen is a good director, and working with ace editor Tricia Ann Cook, he combines clips with a lot of flair and excitement, so the movie delivers exactly what you want. It gets you high on Jerry Lee Lewis and keeps you there.
A famous filmmaker can come close to making a documentary with a particular franchise, and Coen does this by letting clips run for as long as he wants, often for an entire song. Most documentarians didn’t – they would have given you a 20-second taste of Jerry Lee on “The Steve Allen Show” in 1957 singing “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”, his slick-back blonde hair jumping like lava from a volcano, and then it’s Time to jump to another piece of audiovisual information. But Quinn seems to be saying, “How can you get away with that bullshit? It’s so cool.” And he’s right. Leave it to others to make an “American Masters” version of “The Jerry Lee Lewis Story.” Quinn syncs the movie to his pleasure centers — and ours. The result is that “Trouble in Mind” plays like an undiluted take on the joy of rock ‘n’ roll gossip.
The movie is also full of great offbeat choices. It begins with an extended track: Jerry Lee on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in the late ’60s sings a country song about the grief of leaving a woman. Why start the movie with the country? Lewis, having been a hit in the mid-1950s alongside Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard, had two huge singles, “Hole Lotta Shakin” and “Great Balls of Fire” (his biggest hit), which sold hundreds of Thousands of copies daily. But the most famous event of his career – the fact that he married his 13-year-old cousin, Mira Gill Brown – was publicized in May 1958, and the scandal was that he instantly crushed Lewis’ career as a youth culture celebrity. .
As he explained in an interview, he was forced to walk the road from city to city, worked more than 300 nights a year, and stayed that way for 10 years. In a jiffy, he went from making $10,000 a night to $200 a night. He was only able to make a comeback, in the late 1960s, as a country musician, and in this respect, country music became the definition of what he is and what he is. (In a few years, he collected 14 singles.)
Lewis was able to organize that comeback because the country boy is always who he is It was, even more so than Elvis, who despite his poor Southern roots had a stark global polish. From the start, Jerry Lee Lewis was a disembodied hillbilly, and you see it since the 1950s, when he looked like a secluded hell, with those delicate eyes and small, wrinkled mouth. Elvis, of course, had the moves, and they were instinctive but also flowery—his racy white version of what he experienced at R&B clubs and gospel tent shows. Jerry Lee went to those same clubs, notably Haney’s Big House. When he became famous, he would knock the piano away, sometimes with choppy parody-like pieces of piano playing, then kick the piano chair away as if it were the last remnants of civilization, his voice screaming and shouting. And Jerry Lee was the real hound.
The film is built around music (there’s an unusual sequence of Lewis’ performance with Tom Jones, which deserves his own documentary), but little by little, in clip here and clip there, enough of Jerry Lee’s story is told. We know that on the day Mira Gill married, she was actually 12, turning 13 the next, a fact that Lewis reveals without an iota of apology or shame. If there was ever an accident he could have used a more old-school digging approach, it’s this, but Quinn wants to point out to us Jerry Lee’s stance on it – that he never closed his eyes to the repercussions, and never took his eyes off thinking it was a mistake to get married His daughter is his bride and he will not make any apologies for her now. He did it his way. Still alive at 86 (which many don’t realize, given that all the formative rockers are gone), Louis now has seven wives, and many reckless years on drugs and alcohol. At one point, he remembers drinking five whiskeys a day and getting “sober” at shows by drinking five tequila.
His look has become curvy, as we see him transform, over the decades, from a rock ‘n’ roll star who was almost from another world in his shaved ecstatic luster to the occasional grumpy middle-aged redneck, transforming into copper coils. He had the aura of a preacher he might have been, but Lewis, like his cousin Jimmy Swaggart, could have been one of the corrupt holy cylinders. That’s why he became the killer.
The movie includes an amazing archival clip: We hear a 1950s soundtrack of Jerry Lee in the studio talking about rock ‘n’ roll with Sam Phillips, and Phillips says the music lifts you up, but Jerry Lee insists it’s really the devil’s music. We know that the moral scruples of the 1950s felt that way, but it’s startling to think how deeply Jerry Lee did as well – that he was a sinner who liked to err, and descended upon the demons within, yet once he was offstage scared him. As he explained in a later interview, it is a Pentecostal spirit that does not use the word “religion” because the Bible does not use it either; The word “salvation” is used. This What Jerry Lee Lewis Believed: You’re Going to Heaven or Hell. In Trouble with the Mind, we get in touch with the spirit that moved him—the feeling that, perhaps, he was destined to be in both places at the same time.