When a documentary will get made, as an off-ramp ardour venture, by a famous filmmaker who usually directs fiction movies, there’s a particular curiosity and pleasure to seeing the angle — and the form of craft — he’s going to convey to it. “Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Thoughts” is the primary film directed by Ethan Coen all by himself. Ethan, after all, has all the time stood a bit in the shadow of his older brother Joel (who for a very long time took lone directing credit score on the Coen brothers’ movies, though they have been complicated collaborations). So although it’s “simply” a music documentary, that is Ethan’s probability to strut his solo stuff. And he does, in a really Ethan Coen means: intelligent, modest, borderline invisible, however with a kick that sneaks up on you.
“Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Thoughts” is just 73 minutes lengthy, and it tells the story of the nice wild man of rock ‘n’ roll utilizing virtually nothing however previous TV footage — performances that stretch again over six a long time — and interviews that have been additionally achieved primarily for tv, typically instances on well-known speak reveals of the ’70s and ’80s. A number of documentaries, particularly nowadays, can wow you with the density of archival footage that will get poured into them: the house films, the images and diaries and scrapbooks, the visible historical past and detailed personal lives made public. “Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Thoughts” isn’t that form of film. At instances, you virtually count on it to comprise a credit score that reads, “Chief Researcher: some dude combing by way of clips on YouTube.”
Ethan Coen, in different phrases, didn’t exit and interview a bunch of oldsters who advised him insightful tales about Jerry Lee Lewis. It’s all anecdotes advised largely by Jerry Lee, little or no of it “authentic.” You possibly can say that’s a straightforward, or perhaps even lazy, technique to make a documentary. But typically it’s a reduction to be liberated from speaking heads. Ethan Coen is such filmmaker, and dealing with the ace editor Tricia Anne Cooke he combines the clips with a lot style and pizzazz, that the movie delivers simply what you need. It will get you excessive on Jerry Lee Lewis and retains you there.
A celebrated filmmaker can strategy making a documentary with a sure prerogative, and Coen workouts that by letting the clips play on so long as he needs, typically for a whole music. Most documentarians wouldn’t try this — they’d provide you with a 20-second style of Jerry Lee on “The Steve Allen Present” in 1957 singing “Complete Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” his slicked-back honey-blond hair leaping up like lava from a volcano, after which it will be time to leap to a different piece of aural-visual info. However Coen appears to be saying, “How are you going to reduce away from this shit? It’s too superior.” And he’s proper. Go away it to others to make the “American Masters” model of “The Jerry Lee Lewis Story.” Coen syncs the film to his personal pleasure facilities — and ours. The result’s that “Trouble in Thoughts” performs like an undiluted shot of rock ‘n’ roll moonshine pleasure.
The movie can be laced with fascinatingly offbeat decisions. It opens with a type of prolonged music clips: Jerry Lee on “The Ed Sullivan Present” in the late ’60s singing a rustic ballad in regards to the heartbreak of being left by a lady. Why kick off the film with nation? Lewis, after hitting it huge in the mid-’50s in tandem with Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry and Little Richard, had two explosively big singles, “Complete Lotta Shakin’” and “Nice Balls of Hearth” (his greatest hit), each of which offered a whole bunch of hundreds of copies a day. However probably the most notorious occasion of his profession — the truth that he married his 13-year-old cousin, Myra Gale Brown — went public in Might 1958, and it was such a scandal that it immediately squashed Lewis’s run as a youth-culture superstar.
As he explains in an interview, he was pressured to go on the street from metropolis to metropolis, working greater than 300 nights a 12 months, and it stayed that means for 10 years. In a flash, he had gone from making $10,000 an evening to $200 an evening. He was solely in a position to come again, in the late ’60s, as a rustic musician, and in that regard nation music grew to become practically as defining of who he was and is. (Within the house of some years, he’d amassed 14 nation hit singles.)
Lewis was in a position to stage that comeback as a result of a rustic boy is who he all the time was, much more so than Elvis, who for all his poor Southern roots had a brash cosmopolitan polish. From the get-go, Jerry Lee Lewis was an unvarnished hillbilly, and also you see it proper from the ’50s, when he appeared like a backwoods hellion, with these squinty eyes and that small puckered mouth. Elvis, after all, had the strikes, they usually have been instinctive but in addition stylized — his ebullient white-boy model of what he’d skilled in R&B golf equipment and gospel tent reveals. Jerry Lee went to those self same golf equipment, notably Haney’s Huge Home. And when he received well-known, banging away on the piano, typically with a stiff-armed staccato that was like a parody of piano enjoying, then kicking the piano stool away as if it have been the final vestige of civilization, his voice all yelps and whoops and baying-at-the-moon bravado, it was Jerry Lee who was the true hound canine.
The film is constructed across the music (there’s a rare sequence of Lewis performing with Tom Jones, who deserves his personal documentary), but little by little, in a clip right here and a clip there, simply sufficient of Jerry Lee’s story will get advised. We be taught that the day he married Myra Gale, she was truly 12, and turned 13 the subsequent day, a reality Lewis reveals and not using a shred of apology or disgrace. If there’s any incident that would have used extra of the old-school deep-dive strategy, it’s this one, however Coen needs to cue us to Jerry Lee’s angle about it — that he didn’t blink a watch over the fallout, and by no means thought it was unsuitable to marry his youngster bride, and can make no apology for it now. He did it his means. Nonetheless alive at 86 (which many don’t notice, since all the opposite formative rockers are gone), Lewis has now had seven wives, and plenty of reckless years on medication and alcohol. At one level he remembers ingesting two fifths of whiskey a day and getting “sober” to carry out at reveals by ingesting a fifth of Tequila.
His appears received snaky, as we see him flip, over the a long time, from a rock ‘n’ roll star who was virtually otherworldly in his hair-flying ecstatic gleam to a typically courtly, someday indignant middle-aged redneck, the hair turning to copper coils. He had the aura of the preacher he may need been, however Lewis, like his cousin Jimmy Swaggart, would have been one corrupt holy curler. That’s why he grew to become the Killer.
The movie does embrace one superb archival scrap: We hear an audiotape from the ’50s of Jerry Lee in the studio speaking about rock ‘n’ roll with Sam Phillips, and Phillips is saying that the music lifts you up, however Jerry Lee insists that it truly is the satan’s music. We all know that the moralizing scolds of the ’50s felt that means, but it surely’s startling to contemplate how deeply Jerry Lee did too — that he was a sinner who cherished to sin, who received off on the demons inside, but as soon as he was offstage they frightened him. As he explains in a later interview, he’s a Pentecostal soul who doesn’t use the phrase “faith” as a result of the Bible doesn’t both; he makes use of the phrase “salvation.” That’s what Jerry Lee Lewis believed in: that you just have been going to heaven or hell. In “Trouble in Thoughts,” we join with the spirit that moved him — the sensation that he, maybe, was destined to be in each locations on the identical time.