Ethan Coen on How Jerry Lee Lewis Doc Brought Him Back to Filmmaking - Rolling Stone
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How Ethan Coen’s Documentary on Jerry Lee Lewis Brought Him Back to Filmmaking

An exclusive interview with Coen and wife/collaborator Tricia Cooke about making ‘Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind’ and how the doc served as “a gateway drug” for him to not give up on filmmaking

Jerry Lee Lewis in a scene from Ethan Coen's documentary 'Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind.'Jerry Lee Lewis in a scene from Ethan Coen's documentary 'Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind.'

Jerry Lee Lewis in a scene from Ethan Coen's documentary 'Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind.'

A24

Ethan Coen wasn’t exactly a scholar on Jerry Lee Lewis. You wouldn’t even have called him a fan, really.

Sure, the Oscar-winning filmmaker — who, along with his brother Joel, has given the world The Big Lebowski and Barton Fink and Fargo and No Country for Old Men and a dozen other movies that have earned rabid cults and regularly show up on Greatest Movies Ever lists — knew “Whole Lotta Shaking Going On.” Everybody does. He could probably sing a few verses of “Great Balls of Fire” in a karaoke emergency if need be. Press him, and Coen might name you some of his other early hits, like “High School Confidential,” “Breathless,” or “High Heel Sneakers.” And like most folks, he knew about Lewis marrying his 13-year-old cousin and the scandal that ensued, derailing the Killer’s early career and stopping his chart-topping reign dead in his tracks.

Coen had also, by his own admission, “left the movie business” and wasn’t necessarily looking to throw himself into another project; having written one-act plays and short stories and the odd poem here and there, he had other creative outlets. But then Coen and his wife, film editor Tricia Cooke, found themselves several weeks into a lockdown as the pandemic began to grind the world to a halt in the early spring of 2020, and the two became eager to find something to focus their energy on. “I think [the mentality] was: We’d make a movie about almost anything right now,” Coen says over a Zoom call, sitting next to his creative partner and spouse on their couch. It was around that point, he adds, that music producer T-Bone Burnett called them up. He had a question. What did Ethan and Tricia think about Jerry Lee Lewis?

Two years later, Coen and Cooke’s Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind presents a portrait of the Killer that rearranges and remixes the rocker’s story through Lewis’ own words. Told solely through archival clips, TV appearances, interviews, and concert footage — with several of Jerry Lee’s live song performances shown from start to finish — the movie liberally skips around through a life filled with a lot of music. It dives through the good, the bad, the ugly and the holy (including an amazing duet of Lewis and Little Richard tearing into “I’ll Fly Away”). It also places a strong emphasis on the second phase of Lewis’ career as a country & western artist, when songs like “Once More With Feeling” and “Another Place, Another Time” put him back on the charts. You get a strong sense of who the man banging the keys and kicking away stools back in the day was: crazed, righteous, untamed, talented as hell. And thanks to its coda involving a gospel session held after Lewis re-taught himself to play the piano after his 2019 stroke, you get a brief glimpse of the Killer in winter as well.

On the eve of the movie’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, Coen and Cooke talked to Rolling Stone about making the documentary, how they went about addressing the controversy surrounding his third marriage, why they decided to let the music do most of the talking, and how the project served as “a gateway drug” for Ethan’s return to making movies again.

There’s a version of doing this project that’s simply, “The History of Rock & Roll, Chapter 6: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story” — and this definitely isn’t that.

Ethan Coen: Yeah, we definitely didn’t want to do that — the voice-of-God, history-of-rock movie. We didn’t want to bring in experts telling us how great Jerry Lee was. The more experts tell me how important a musician is, the less I believe it. The more you see aging rock stars talk about what a great influence he is while sitting in front of a bland background, the more depressing it is. [Laughs] I just want to see the person, see him perform. Just present the character.

Tricia Cooke: We’re both fans of, “Let the artist do their own talking instead of watching other people talk about them.” And because we had access to so much footage — because Jerry Lee has been performing and being interviewed for decades — it was easy to piece that together.

EC: You look at something like Amy [Asif Kapadia’s 2015 documentary on Amy Winehouse], which was a big influence on this, and it’s remarkable how much stuff they have of her as a kid at home and performing, despite her young age. But the way we did this — that all came from T-Bone. I don’t know if you want to call it a mandate, but when he enlisted us to do this, he made clear that that this was the type of movie he wanted to have us do.

He brought this project to you, right? Had you been entertaining the idea of making a documentary and he said, “Well, what about Jerry Lee Lewis?” Or was it more, we’re stuck at home and looking for something to do?

EC: Very much the second choice, yes. You described it exactly. [Laughs] It was the beginning of the lockdown two years ago, we’re in our house in New York doing nothing, and I’d kind of left the movie business at that point. I was bored with it. But at that moment, I think it was: We’d make a movie about almost anything right now. Then T-Bone presented us with Jerry Lee Lewis as a subject, and the decision made itself.

TC: It was a gift from the heavens. It came to us two or maybe three weeks into the pandemic, when everybody was still afraid to go outside. What are we going to do? The answer was: We can stay inside and make this movie.

EC: We made the movie in our living room. It was great.

Would you describe yourselves as a “casual” fan of his work? Had either of you known about his country music hits going into this?

EC: I was a casual fan, yeah — I knew the Sun records and the rock & roll hits. I knew about the scandal. I was vaguely aware of this second career a little later on but I wasn’t familiar with him as a country artist.

TC: The only other sing I knew was his cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which Ethan had put on the only mixtape he ever made me when we first started hanging out with each other.

Was T-Bone already in the middle of making this and he wanted you to take it across the finish line? Was he just looking for you to shape the material he had?

EC: He’d already had the archivist compile a shit-ton of stuff. It had a strange history — T-Bone did a session with Jerry Lee that you see a minute of at the end of the film, a gospel session they recorded in 2019. I think the original idea was that T-Bone and Steve Bing, who I believe was the initiating producer of the thing, were going to do a documentary about this session specifically. They were just going to use a little archival stuff to flesh it out.

And then Steve died [in 2020] and he hadn’t talked to Jerry Lee in the way he’d planned, in a way that they could have shaped the documentary around it. So everything changed. T-Bone brought it to us after that, and it was, here’s this archival stuff and here’s some footage of the gospel session. The identity of the movie was very fluid at that point.

T-Bone did say two things to us, however, that very much dictated what the movie would become in terms how it’d feel. He said, “Let’s start with the Ed Sullivan Show performance of ‘She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye’ [in 1969], the full performance, and let’s end with ‘Another Place, Another Time’ — again, full performance — and it’ll be a picture of Jerry Lee.” And we thought, Oh, great! That’s a good movie!

TC: He asked for a tone poem — that’s how he described what he was looking for. And we weren’t exactly, ah…we weren’t quite sure how we were going to create that. [Laughs] We had all of this archival footage and the gospel sessions, and as we got deeper into the archival stuff, the structure became clearer. I don’t think it’s a tone poem at all, but it’s also not a chronological, straightforward documentary either.

EC: Yes, smile when you call me a tone poet, please. [Laughs] As you see, the gospel sessions is just kind of punctuation at the end of the movie — and it works really well as punctuation. I think T-Bone realized the extent to which it would be just that, but I don’t think any of us realized that either until it just kind of came together.

TC: It gave us the liberty to do whatever we wanted, so as we started using more and more archival footage, it was, “Oh my god, this is going an incredibly different direction!” But T-Bone was totally supportive. Once we started down that road, he really wanted us to take it wherever we thought it’d be best.

EC: It was exciting for us, because it could have been anything. Given the mountain of archival material, the question was: If you’re going to compose a picture of an artist, where do you start composing? It was so wide open but that was stimulating. Not intimidating. Stimulating. Once we realized this was going to work, and that we’d committed to showing as many full performances as possible, there was no going back to the idea of, “Here are a bunch of facts interspersed with little bits of music.” Because who cares? Who cares about the facts!?! [Laughs]

Was there something that you found in the mountain of footage that became a Rosetta stone for the doc?

EC: I’ll tell you, T-Bone saying, we’re starting with this song and we’re showing the whole performance — that really set the tone. For people like me — and I imagine a lot of people who see this will be people like me — this is a pretty unfamiliar version of Jerry Lee. The reaction is…first, it’s: He’s fantastic! Second, he’s not exactly how I pictured him. So, who is he then? And then you think, Ok, ok, this is beginning of a good movie. I want to follow where this goes.

Tricia has said this before, but making a documentary from nothing but archival footage means you’re writing a story through your choices. That’s how Joel and I wrote together, and when Tricia and I have worked on stuff, it’s how we write together: You start with a first scene, and then you go, Ok, so what happens next? Where is this going to go? The beginning is the germ. In terms of writing and editing, the beginning gives you everything.

TC: It wasn’t like there was one clip we found that acted like a Rosetta stone, but I will say that Jerry Lee’s visual style definitely helped us shaped the movie. The way he played, what he’s doing with his hands, his sartorial style — all of those things guided us. There were times where we found ourselves going, “We have to get him playing that part!” Or, “We have to get that vest in the movie!” There were times when we’d know we had to use a piece of footage because watch how he’s playing, check out how much passion he’s got in this song — and he looks amazing!!

EC: You know, the hand thing…Miles Davis used to say that when he was auditioning people to play with, he didn’t even need to hear or see them play. He could just tell by the way they handled their instruments whether he’d want to play with them, or like them as musicians or not. And there’s this oral history thing on Mike Bloomfield where Al Kooper talks about meeting Bloomfield for this Dylan recording session They’re meeting up at the Columbia studio in New York, it’s raining outside and Bloomfield comes in with his electric guitar — not a case, not a gig bag, just his guitar — and he took a dirty towel, wiped off his guitar and just plugged in. And Kooper’s response was, Ok, that guy knows what he’s doing. [Laughs] I say all this long-winded shit because you look at Jerry Lee playing the piano, and in a way, he does not give a shit about the piano! You can tell everything about him by how he’s playing it.

It wasn’t until I saw Trouble in Mind that I realized that Jerry Lee Lewis has great Coen-brothers-character hair. He totally fits in to your stable of guys with extraordinary hairdos.

EC: Such great hair. Jerry Lee used to say, “Women really liked Elvis because he was pretty, but I was the one with the prettier hair.” There was always that part of his act when he’s playing, I dunno, “Whole Lotta Shaking,” and he’s building up to do the ecstatic thing — the moment where he just going to go. And the hair is the sign that he’s gone. Once the hair starts flying around, all bets are off.

CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 23: Tricia Cooke and Ethan Coen attend the "Macbeth" premiere during the 68th annual Cannes Film Festival on May 23, 2015 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Antonio de Moraes Barros Filho/FilmMagic,)

Tricia Cooke and Ethan Coen at 68th annual Cannes Film Festival in 2015.

Antonio de Moraes Barros Filho/Antonio de Moraes Barros Filho/FilmMagic

I don’t think a lot of people know, or at least remember, that he had a whole other career as a country & western artist in the 1960s — and there’s a big emphasis on that second phase of his career in the movie.

EC: Yeah, it’s not like he was a two-hit wonder. I mean, he had more than two hits in the early days, but you know what I mean. I think the country music stuff…most people think of Jerry Lee as this rock & roll madman. And when you hear the country music, you realize that Jerry Lee was not just a rock star. He was a musician. And he was great at doing harmonies, which I think that sequence of him singing with Tom Jones in the movie shows. That was fantastic. And they’re singing soul music together! Jerry Lee talks credit for discovering and mentoring Tom Jones, and I’m sure there is some degree of validity to that.

So you’ve got his rock singles, his country hits, his gospel music — but the salient ingredient is Jerry Lee Lewis, not the genre.

TC: Being a big country fan — my mother is from Tennessee, so I grew up steeped in that music — it’s easy to see how natural that music came to him. He was from Louisiana. He grew up knowing that music even before rock & roll. It seemed like a natural place for him to go musically at that point, and it seemed like a natural place for us to go in the film.

What was your thought process when it came to addressing the scandal? You don’t want it to eclipse the music. You don’t want to whitewash what happened, either.

EC: Well…you’re doing a portrait of an artist, and that was a big part of the picture. It was probably the defining event of his career. It’s not like we could editorialize on it, really. So the idea was just to present it as part of the story, told though his words. It very much, “Here’s a great artist…and here are also some of the less-great things that are part of this as well.” [Laughs]

TC: Myra was his third marriage by the time he was 22. We wanted to give some context for what happened, for sure, but we didn’t want to apologize for it either. It really was, let the footage tell what happened. I mean, we all know it was wrong.

EC: Right, what could we say to add to that? But we did go back and forth on providing more context. We did have interviews of people going, Well, that’s how it was. It wasn’t common, but it wasn’t unheard of when you look back at the place and the time. That stuff happened. But we didn’t want to add that in because were afraid it would seem like we were either apologizing or editorializing.

You did include a TV interview with Myra from what looks like the late 1980s, and from that clip, she strikes you as someone who does not consider herself a victim.

EC: Right. We did not want to leave Myra out of the movie by default because that might make her seem like a victim, and she does not think of herself like that at all. We wanted you to see her as a self-assured person who has her own mind.

TC: We definitely wanted to give her a voice here, yeah.

EC: Jerry Lee never apologizes for anything. But thing is, neither does Myra. That clip is a good example of that.

How’d this change your idea of who Jerry Lee Lewis is — or who you thought he was?

TC: I’ll admit that I went in a little hesitant, based on what little I knew about him. And I now have a lot more respect for Jerry Lee then I did coming in. He was a lot more complex than I thought that he was. I certainly have more respect for his artistry than I previously did. But he’s a difficult guy. He’s got a lot of anger. He’s very contradictory. There were times when you’d watch the footage of him and go, I would not have wanted to be around him on that day.

EC: I started with a kind of cartoon idea of who he was: The crazy rock & roll guy, with the marriage and the scandal! Then you see all these clips of Jerry Lee making music, as opposed to some sort of rocker sideshow, circus-geek act — which was kind of how he was sold as, you know. “It’s the wild man, banging his piano!” Well, yes, but he was also an artist. That second part stands out to me a lot more now.

You said before you’d kind of left the industry when this project came to you. Your brother had to field a lot of questions as well when his movie came out last year Did working on this make you feel a little less burnt out or bored by the movie business? Do you feel like this helped rekindle some sort of creative spark for you?

EC: Yeah, I kind of helped eased me back into things. Being able to come to the living room every morning and make a movie was a good way to ease back into filmmaking without all of the horrible production stuff. Not even “horrible,” really — it can just be so incredibly difficult. And doing this was pure pleasure. It kind of got me back in. Tricia and I are working on something now — a fiction thing — and we’re already prepping that, so yeah. It was the gateway drug for getting back into movies. [Laughs] I mean, we got handed this Jerry Lee character, and ordinarily, you have to really labor to create someone this rich. But he just sort of fell into our laps. We couldn’t resist him. Jerry Lee Lewis will not be denied!

In This Article: Ethan Coen, Jerry Lee Lewis

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