×
Back to IndieWire

‘Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind’ Review: Ethan Coen’s Slim Doc Is at the Mercy of Its Wild Subject

Cannes: The rock doc is an amiable and easy watch that doesn't dig too deeply into the darker corners of its indelible subject.

“Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind”

A24

Those looking to play Coen Kremlinologist now that the brothers are following individual muses might find themselves at a loss with “Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind.” To understand filmmaker Ethan Coen’s unique perspective, better pick up one of his plays or books of poetry, or simply wait for the lesbian road comedy he’s slated to direct later this year. When it comes to this musical documentary that marks Coen’s first solo directorial outing, the voice that rings loudest belongs to the man in the title.

Less a biography of a music pioneer than a chance to hang by his side, Coen’s concise 72-minute film builds on nothing but archival footage, mixing and matching decades of interviews with hours of recorded performances. Eventually, Coen and his film settle around the thesis that Jerry Lee — who’s still kicking at age 86 and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame just last week — might have been something of a rascal, but boy could he rock.

A kind of a pandemic make-work project the director assembled as he locked down with his editor (and wife) Tricia Cooke and worked through a trove of archival footage offered to him by T. Bone Burnett, “Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind” is an amiable and easy watch that doesn’t explore too many of the singer’s more unseemly aspects and, by design, cannot. While the film loses little time before addressing Lewis’ marriage at age 22 to his 13-year-old cousin, Myra Brown, nor does it dwell on the subject for very long. If the singer himself didn’t bring up the subject throughout the hours of tape Coen and Cooke whittled down for their film, then what else could they do but move on?

To find fault with that question is to find fault with the film’s overall approach, and that’s fair enough, but taken on its own terms, the doc can be plenty of fun. It helps that Lewis is a live-wire force with more pure charisma and innate showmanship than just about anyone else on the planet, and as the film pulls almost entirely from stage and talk show performances, we find the singer turning those dials all the way up. The one time Lewis does address the 1957 scandal that decimated his fanbase (and earning potential) and changed the trajectory of a career that would still barrel forward for another six decades, he does with words that sound chilling when divorced from his disarming, devil-in-me charm. “She wasn’t thirteen,” Lewis corrects an interviewer. “She was twelve. Turned thirteen the next day.”

Delivering his quick-witted repartee in a drawl that grows thicker than molasses as the years go by, Lewis is a character in every sense of the term. He’s an American Original, full of bluster and bravado, somehow more stylized and italicized than us normal folk, but instantly recognizable as a type. If he wasn’t a real person, only the Coens (at least one of them) could make him up. Which makes the somewhat impersonal “Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind” such an impish little paradox: You don’t get much of the filmmaker, but somehow get all of his characters. Still, you do get a familiar and percussive sense of rhythm.

Less heralded for his Avid work than for his writing and directing, Coen and Cooke (who’s credited as co-editor on “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” and “The Big Lebowski” alongside the elusive Roderick Jayne) pace this doc around a boundless musical beat. From the time Ed Sullivan introduces Lewis in the film’s opening shot to the moment the screen goes dark some 72 minutes later, the hits quite literally do not stop. As if to wrangle and contain the hours of performance and interview footage they were given, Coen and Cooke structure the doc as a series of consecutive thematic sequences that explore a different aspect of the promethean performer’s life and career through the full length of one of his songs.

Those subsections include religion, family (sometimes a bit of both, as among Lewis’ whopping 78 cousins is the televangelist Jimmy Swaggart), his demons, the role of Black music in his early life, the distinctions between rock-and-roll and rockabilly, and oh so many more. They also afford the filmmaker the occasion to let some humor shine through. When a slimmed down and newly sober Lewis talks about his prodigious booze intake during the chapter devoted to Substance Abuse, the film plays the interview against a performance of “Me and Bobby McGee” that finds the singer fifty pounds heavier and bloated as corpse — and dammit, somehow, he still looks pretty good.

That’s the thing about the performer called The Killer, at least as he’s presented here: Even at his lowest ebb, he can still blow you away. And though slight and somewhat repetitive, “Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind,” Coen’s documentary succeeds in one major way. Asked why he plays his shows without any opening or following acts, Lewis replies, “I don’t think there’s anyone qualified!” You laugh at the bravado, and then readily concede that he might be right.

Grade: B-

“Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind” premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. A24 will release the film later this year.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Film, Reviews and tagged , , ,


Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox