I used to know a record-industry veteran who had seen every performer there was and had given at least one household name their big break. He swore Jerry Lee Lewis was the greatest of them all, having seen him countless times, including a couple of concerts at the star’s home near Memphis. Ethan Coen’s Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind is surely what this superfan wished for every time a younger friend snickered at his claims: a video mixtape chock-full of performances showing how even a man who rarely wrote his own songs could earn a place in the rock’n’roll pantheon.
And that is almost literally all it is: one performance clip after another, most filmed for TV broadcast, with snippets of archival TV interviews stitched in to offer hints of a personal portrait. Aside from Lewis and his questioners, the only people who get to talk (very briefly) are his ex-wife Myra (the cousin he infamously married when she was still a child) and another cousin, country singer Mickey Gilley. Coen never speaks to his subject himself, much less to the peers, fans and scholars who might shed light on this very thorny character. “Look at this guy play!,” the movie says, and lets that be enough.
Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind
The Bottom Line
Nearly all-performance doc captures the Killer at his best.
If it weren’t directed by Coen (working with editor Tricia Cooke, his wife), Trouble would merit a debut at a less showy festival than Cannes, where reviews would boil down to “damn, they sure dug up a lotta great clips!” It would then go to a streaming service, and any young viewers curious about the man’s story would probably wind up looking instead to Great Balls of Fire!, the 1989 biopic starring Dennis Quaid. A documentarian who specializes in music — Thom Zimny, say, who has made excellent portraits of Lewis’ contemporaries Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash — might still be able to get funding for a nonfiction look at his life, separating legend from fact and tracing his musical legacy. A film like that looks much less viable now.
That’s not to say Trouble offers zero insight into its subject’s soul; only that celebrities sitting on talk-show couches aren’t often putting their truest selves on display. Even when he’s being reflective in long-form TV interviews, Lewis is framing things based on where his life’s at right then, and it’s hard to take some claims — like Myra’s assertion that he was totally unfazed when their marriage killed his career as a rocker — seriously.
Overall, the talk-show clips suggest an amiably conceited artist who, for instance, refused to let others perform before or after him because his own act was more than enough. He talks briefly about the Black-owned Louisiana joint he snuck into as a kid, but gives no specifics about what he learned from the musicians there. He talks about traveling to Sun Records after hearing Presley’s first singles, and brags that he never needed a second take when recording his own hits there. But these biographical landmarks are spotty enough that, just before the credits roll, Coen offers title cards containing a brief summary of his career.
One remarkable inclusion suggests what a different kind of film might have done with Lewis’ life and art: An audiotape finds Lewis having a heated discussion with Sun’s Sam Phillips about the conflict between rock’n’roll and the Christian beliefs Lewis still held. Seeming to castigate himself in between recording those one-take wonders, Lewis laments that he has the Devil in him and isn’t doing anything to lead audiences to salvation. The singer’s demons are often alluded to here, but Coen makes no effort to clear up the mythology surrounding events like his accidental shooting of his bassist and alleged threat on Elvis’ life.
Mixed feelings about the sacred and the secular are hardly unique to this musician. Little Richard, a poster child for such conflicts, shows up midway through the film for a transporting duet on “I’ll Fly Away.” (Another duet, recorded elsewhere, features Tom Jones.) And we get a mercifully brief musical clip of another Lewis cousin, scandal-plagued televangelist Jimmy Swaggart.
All of the above might have been very provocative in a film focused solely on Lewis’ gospel work. In fact, Trouble seems to have originated with a plan to document gospel sessions T Bone Burnett and Joe Henry were producing for Lewis. The singer’s web site still contains a 2020 announcement that Burnett and Callie Khouri were directing a documentary about those sessions.
That project morphed into this one, and interviews with Coen and Cooke portray Burnett’s suggestion that they take over as something of a pandemic miracle, drawing them back into filmmaking just when COVID isolation was making retirement look very boring. Trouble in Mind may appeal mainly to roots-rock diehards and Coen Brothers super-completists. But if it has convinced Ethan Coen not to give up on film, it was a movie well worth making.