Ethan Coen returns to cinema with documentary by Jerry Lee Lewis

Most in the movie industry thought that Ethan Coen was done making movies. Coen himself believed it.

But on Sunday, Coen premiered his first documentary, “Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind,” at the Cannes Film Festival, which only became known last month when the festival program was announced. The film, which A24 will distribute later this year, is a searing portrait of the rock ‘n’ roll and country legend made almost entirely from archive footage, filled with riveting performances rather than celebrity interviews.

It is Coen’s first film without his brother Joel after three decades as one of the strongest and most unbreakable partnerships in cinema. Last year, Joel made “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” a film that suggested his brother had never been interested. Ethan is now also preparing with his wife and collaborator, editor Tricia Cooke, a road trip lesbian sex comedy they wrote together 15 years ago.

“Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind” began with longtime collaborator T-Bone Burnett, who in 2019 recorded a gospel album with the 86-year-old Lewis. The film, as Coen and Cooke pointed out in an interview ahead of its Cannes premiere, touches on some of the most complicated parts of Lewis’s legacy. (The musician married his 13-year-old cousin when he was in his early 20s in what was then his third marriage.) But most of all, it brings to life the amazing force of the musical dynamo behind songs like “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”, “Great Balls of Fire” and “Me and Bobby McGee”.

AP: Many thought that you, Ethan, were no longer interested in making movies. What changed?

COEN: What changed is that I started to get bored. I was with Trish in New York at the beginning of the lockdown. You know, it was all kind of scary and claustrophobic. And T-Bone Burnett, our friend from many years ago, approached us, actually more Trish than me, to ask if we wanted to make this movie basically from stock footage. We could make it at home.

COOKE: It was like a home movie project. We are both huge fans of his music. He had some problems with other parts of Jerry Lee’s life. He thought “I don’t know if I want to play that”. But it ended up being a lot of fun. Honestly, T-Bone came to us like two weeks after the pandemic started, so he was a lifesaver.

AP: Ethan, what was it that undermined your desire to make movies?

COEN: Nothing dramatic happened. You start as a child wanting to make a movie. It’s all excitement: we’re going to make a movie! And the first movie is just so much fun. Then the second movie is very funny, almost as funny as the first. And after 30 years, it’s not that it’s not fun, but it’s more work than it ever was. Joel felt the same way, but not as much as I did. It is an inevitable byproduct of aging. And the last two movies we did together were really difficult in terms of production, very difficult. So if you don’t have to, at some point you say, “why am I doing this?”

COOKE: Too many westerns.

COEN: It was getting a bit old and difficult.

AP: When you say “difficult,” does it have to do with the ecosystem of the industry?

COEN: Not at all, although that has obviously changed beyond recognition compared to when we started. But no, it was the experience of producing and having been doing it for I don’t know how many years, maybe 35. It was the experience of making a movie more like a routine and something less fun.

AP: Has anything changed now that you’re preparing to make a movie together this summer?

COEN: It all depends on the circumstances. We finished this (the documentary) a long time ago and we were still doing nothing. We had this old script and we were like, “Oh, we should do that. It would be funny”. That’s the movie we’re working on.

COOKE: I don’t want to speak for Ethan, but I know that at some point I stopped editing because my priorities changed. Now our children are grown and we still get along and have fun doing things together. We had written some of this stuff down and Joel and Ethan would always say, “We’ll put it in a drawer. The children will find it one day.” Now we say “OK, let’s do it. Let’s open that drawer and see if anyone wants to make this movie.”

AP: Ethan, do you anticipate that you and your brother will go your separate ways in film?

COEN: I don’t know. Going our separate ways seems to suggest that it could be definitive, but none of this happened definitively. No decision is final. We could make another movie. I don’t know what my next movie will be after this one. The pandemic is over. I became a big baby and got bored and quit, and then the pandemic came. So who knows?

AP: Did you always conceive of “Trouble in Mind” as an archive-based documentary, without interviewees?

COEN: The film has a history prior to our participation. It was originally conceived as a gospel shoot that T-Bone produced with Jerry Lee in 2019. Along the way, they compiled a lot of stock footage. It seemed to make more sense to talk about Jerry Lee than this particular session. We took it even further that way.

COOKE: When T-Bone initially introduced it to us, he described that he wanted it as a tone poem. I don’t think we’ve done that. (laughs)

COEN: Yeah, that sounds a bit fruity.

COOKE: But from the beginning we didn’t want to have a bunch of talking heads, especially if they weren’t Jerry Lee’s.

COEN: T-Bone was explicit that he wanted the movie to start with that performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” of “She Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye.” And he wanted it to end with “Another Place, Another Time.” And we were like, “Oh (expletive), that’s great.” He told us all the performances. We said, “Great. You’re talking about a good movie.”

AP: You have worked extensively on fiction films. Have you ever thought of making a documentary? Do you watch many documentaries?

COOKE: I did a short documentary years ago called “Where the Girls Are” about the Dinah Shore golf tournament. In general, we both love documentaries. Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles and Pennebaker and Barbara Kopple. All those older documentarians.

COEN: Why are they all old?

COOKE: We are old.

COEN: Did you see the Beatles documentary? It was fantastic.

AP: The further we get from mid-century American movies and music, the more it seems to me that it was such a fertile period of creation that it will never be repeated. Like wherever Jerry Lee Lewis came from, it’s no longer a place that nobody comes from.

COEN: I totally agree. It’s like, yeah, all of that disappeared.

COOKE: Things are not discovered in the same way. For Jerry Lee, when he was young, going to a blues club was not something he had access to and it became an incredible passion. Everything is so big now, so global, not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but there doesn’t seem to be the same passion as in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s.

AP: When you watch him perform, arms going up and down like pistons, he’s so dynamic you can’t help but wonder where that energy comes from.

COEN: Musicians are phenomena. I mean that in the best possible way.

COOKE: He talks about the Pentecostal Church. It’s almost as if he has outgrown this passion for playing. I just remember being mesmerized when we started to see the images.

COEN: Examining the stock footage was a once-in-a-lifetime blessing, but also a curse. Because he also did his (expletive) of things.

AP: What is your personal threshold when it comes to the behavior of an artist and their art? “Trouble in Mind” deliberately does not seek to pass judgment.

COEN: If it’s a good movie, that’s why it’s good. What are we supposed to do with it? Right, that’s a permissible question. That’s what makes the movie interesting. How do you put that magnetic artist together with that flawed person? I mean, none of the Beatles married his 13-year-old cousin, but in a way it’s like the Beatles movie and why it’s so exciting. You say “wow”. These are simultaneously huge cultural figures and tiny human beings. That’s what’s amazing.

Jerry Lee is very similar. I don’t think anyone in his right mind is going to ask for an embargo on his music because as a person he had certain flaws. Who imposes that choice? All glory to T-Bone for presenting us with the opportunity and saying that it’s going to be about Jerry Lee, about this musician, and not about others telling us what to think about Jerry Lee or us editorializing, telling the public what to think. All those things are not recipes for making a good movie and they don’t work for Jerry.

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Jake Coyle is on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

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