What do you love in a rock doc? If it’s a celebration of the music, the hip-shaking spectacle of an electrifying concert performance, the feeling of being there as a new sound is created, Ethan Coen’s first solo directorial effort has a whisky chaser it wants you to hold.
And what a subject he finds in this affectionate treatment of Jerry Lee Lewis, the enduring, piano-bashing rock and country icon behind ‘Great Balls of Fire’ and ‘Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On’. Born in Louisiana at the nexus of roots, blues, country and a million other vital musical forms, and given a piano by his parents at the age of five, it feels almost inevitable that he’d find his way into the music business and en route to stardom. Confidence was never an issue for him, either. ‘Anyone who didn’t like “Whole Lotta Shakin’” had to have a problem,’ he notes matter-of-factly in one of the many old interviews Coen uses to sketch out his career.
Throw in a natural sense of showmanship, rapturously captured in a rat-tat-tat selection of archive concert footage that invariably culminate in Lewis (nicknamed ‘Killer’) on top of a piano and his audience wigging out, and ‘Trouble in Mind’ is a joyful jukebox of ’50s and ’60s chart-toppers – doubly so for the already-converted.
If, though, you’re looking for a more probing look at the man behind the balls of fire, or a pan back to place him in a broader context, Coen’s rockumentary will fall just a little short of satisfying. Lewis grew up in the deep South and sat at the feet of Black bluesmen, but there’s no hint here of his views on the Civil Rights movement, or on any of the prevailing political winds of the four decades he spanned. Unlike other musicians, you won’t find too many personal insights in the lyrics.
And a 1957 marriage to his 13-year-old third cousin, Myra Lewis Williams, is skirted past, eyes to the ground, even if its aftermath – a musical purgatory spent on the road playing ever-smaller venues – introduces the film’s first sour note. There are others. Booze, pills and a deep guilt at not living up to his family’s Christian beliefs, all no doubt interconnected, are the demons that almost visibly pursue him through his later years.
Unlike almost all of his contemporaries, Lewis is still going strong at 86. It’s a shame that he couldn’t be interviewed afresh for Trouble in Mind, because it would have been intriguing to hear his thoughts on those demons with perspective and on that thorny question of faith now he’s in the winter of his life. Still, his dry wit and tart way of summarising in a sentence what others have dedicated thousands of words to is in rich evidence here. As, of course, are those indelible tunes. As Martin Scorsese once instructed at the beginning of his classic concert doc about The Band, The Last Waltz: play it loud.
Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.