Last year, Joel Cohen graced us with his mesmerizing adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth to world-wide acclaim. Ethan Coen, however, opted for a very different line of work: A24’s new music doc, Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble In Mind. With a slim runtime of little over one hour, the film is tasked with channeling the legendary rock n roll performer’s electric presence, all the while painting a comprehensive overview of his career and life. And what a life that is – from his countryside Louisiana roots, his breakthrough hits, subsequent sway to country music, and some of the more indelicate moments (such as him marrying his 13-year-old cousin) that inform his biography as an unruly legend.
Editor Tricia Cooke, who worked alongside the Coen brothers on The Big Lebowski (1998), strings out an extended supercut of Lewis’ wildly entertaining on-stage performances mixed in with cocky interview answers. The film works well as an archival piece, undoubtedly dedicated to its subject-matter in the way it constructs an image of him which is well in line with his legendary status. It almost reads as a farewell piece and towards the end when its beatifying intent becomes all the more obvious. Even if the documentary form allows room for some ambivalence with the inclusion of clips which have Jerry Lee cornered and at the mercy of talk show hosts, the last word in each of these potentially disruptive moments is always left to him.
Trouble In Mind doesn’t shy away from emphasizing on the fact that Jerry Lee’s nickname is ‘The Killer,’ which makes it even more unsettling to see the fact that he himself took a shot at his guitarist, hushed and laughed off. One can argue that the film is steering away from sensationalist content but the obvious disbalance between glorification and objective distance makes the film fall more into the category of fan service than documentary cinema.
For those who came to learn more about Jerry Lee Lewis as a person, the film has little to offer outside of the conventional “bad boy of rock n roll” image but there is a magnetic quality to this curated content, with all its textures and intricate temporalities. All the footage is scratchy or noisy, shot on film or ripped from TV; the restoration work done on some of the clips has left such a nostalgic imprint on the black and white imagery that renders a whole sequence truly special. And without a doubt, the star’s physical presence on stage has always been the talk of the town – the many instances in which the TV camera stays with his hands hitting the piano keys so frantically and exquisitely that they become a skin-colored blur. The virtuosity of this self-taught pianist will never cease to amaze audiences and this majestic effect will now be more easily accessible to marvel at.
Despite the delights of hearing bangers like “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” in various performance recordings, it’s a mystery why the film insists on repeating these songs again and again, instead of showcasing more examples of the artist’s extensive legacy. With little to no imagination put into the development of this project, Trouble In Mind is doomed to be called formulaic. Tribute documentaries can and should afford some distance, especially since distance enables a more curious, complex look be it a person, a performer, a star; it’s always a whole universe waiting to be explored.
This review is from the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. A24 will release Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind in the U.S.