Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind lets the Killer try to shoot straight

Ethan Coen’s first solo doc stands the rock ’n’ roll trailblazer’s own account of his life against a devilish array of live testimony from the archive.

Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind (2022)

All Killer, no filler might best describe this 73-minute, foot-stomping hurtle through the life and times of one of rock ’n’ roll’s pioneers. Told almost exclusively with archive clips, it blends decades of interviews alongside bountiful footage of Lousiana’s original wild man in his natural environment: on stage, head thrown back whooping, piano stool kicked over as he jackhammers the ivories, seemingly with the hounds of hell on his tail. 

Jerry Lee Lewis is, at 86, the last of the 1950s rock legends still standing. And while devotees of The Killer will likely be familiar with many of the scenes and songs presented here, those who only know him from his era-defining smashes Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On and Great Balls of Fire are going to get something far savvier and more artful than a YouTube greatest hits playlist.

That’s because there’s a genuine auteur at the helm here – though one who, despite making movies for nearly 40 years, has never had a solo directing designation. When Ethan Coen and elder brother Joel released their 1984 first feature Blood Simple, Directors’ Guild rules stipulated a single named director. Though described by many colleagues as effectively a two-headed beast, the Coens pragmatically divvied up the roles: Joel as director, Ethan as producer, the pair as co-writers. Not until 2004’s The Ladykillers were the duo allowed to share helmer credits, Ethan no longer the man who wasn’t (listed) there.

With the brothers’ collaboration currently on indefinite, though amicable, hiatus, it’s fascinating to see their diverging directions. Last year came Joel’s theatrical, star-powered Shakespeare adaptation The Tragedy of Macbeth. Ethan, always publicly less high-profile and even less talkative than his taciturn brother, has opted for a much lower-key project. And yet in its stripped-down brevity, Trouble in Mind still provides much evidence of Coen-esque cerebral construction and mordant wit. Not to mention a protagonist whose outrageous antics and distinct verbal patter could easily pass for one of their own exuberant creations.

At first, it’s all deceptively simple. Within the first quarter of an hour we’ve had a brisk précis of the patented Jerry Lee origin story: preternatural musical talent, instant Sun Records success with those one-two punch hit singles, then a fall from grace followed by gradual redemption as a country and gospel artist. There are no ‘talking head’ rock scholars to contextualise pop culture influence. Nor, bar one brief excerpt, former wives or band members to debunk the legend. Instead the story is told, across many decades, by the man himself.

What there is plenty of throughout are extended scenes of the music – an early highlight being his electrifying TV debut playing Whole Lotta Shakin… on The Steve Allen Show in 1957. At one juncture the question is raised: “What is rock and roll?” “Jerry Lee Lewis,” Jerry Lee Lewis fires back instantly. It’s hard to argue.

More contentious is Lewis’s unrepentant, borderline obtuse account of his personal life. As an interviewee he lacks the relaxed humour of his great rival Elvis Presley, or the warm grace of Johnny Cash. Slowly, though, the strategy of Coen and his editor (and wife) Tricia Cooke becomes apparent. By juxtaposing Lewis’s largely self-serving self-publicity with their own wily clip assembly, they’re allowing him to speak for, contradict, and often damn himself. 

When the film lands on the controversy – Lewis’s marriage to his 13-year-old cousin Myra – that effectively got him cancelled long before ‘cancel culture’, Coen and Cooke wryly intercut his brusque responses with Lewis’s own appearance in 1950s teen movie High School Confidential. In recovery after a near-death experience with a perforated stomach, Lewis blithely wafts around a huge cigar. It’s sly commentary without overt comment. Anyone expecting outright denunciation of Jerry Lee’s more sordid past clearly hasn’t seen, or understood, previous Coen movies.

Meantime, the euphoric musical montages keep on rolling, including fiery duets with Little Richard and Tom Jones, and a bizarre segue where a bearded Lewis reveals on British TV that he’s going to play Jesus in a biopic called The Carpenter (though he never did). Indeed, Lewis is more honest and conflicted on his relationship with God than anything else: there’s wonderful audio of him arguing to Sun Records supremo Sam Phillips that he’s actually playing the devil’s music. Not that it ever really stopped him. If nothing else, Jerry Lee always did know who had the best tunes.

The new issue of Sight and Sound

In this 21st-century cinema special: 25 critics choose an era-defining film from each year of the century, and J. Hoberman asks: what is a 21st-century film? Plus: ten talking points from Cannes – George Miller on Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga – remembering Roger Corman with a never-before-seen interview.

Get your copy