Cannes’ Jerry Lee Lewis documentary avoids his gross pedophilia and incest


Cannes' Jerry Lee Lewis documentary avoids his gross pedophilia and incest

What is there to say about Ethan Coen’s hilariously anonymous, happily mundane documentary about Jerry Lee Lewis? You’ve seen hundreds of these things aired on some TV channel at 8:30pm on a Tuesday, leading your grandfather to say, “He was lively, wasn’t he? That Jerry Lee Lewis. What was the name of his song? Turn up the volume.”

Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in the Head is nominally “by” Ethan Coen, but readers are hereby challenged—challenged! – to find a single example of the individual brother’s personal contribution. Search endless archive footage of Jerry performing a rousing boogie-woogie on a variety show, or sitting sideways at his piano at home reminiscing about Sun Records, or performing another outrageous slice of boogie-woogie at a concert, or himself reminiscent of his switch to country music or playing some more boogie-woogie, and try to find the influence of the man behind half of The big Lebowski. You can not. A bewildering lack of point of view is evident in almost every scene here: you could get the same effect by reading JLL’s Wikipedia and watching some clips on YouTube.

In fact, you might get a slightly more complete picture of the artist by going down this route, like Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in the Head is almost hilariously uninterested in exploring the more difficult elements of Lewis’ life – like his marriage to his 12-year-old cousin (which is briefly bypassed over here if not played for laughs), or his shooting of one of his backing musicians, or his possible involvement in the death of one of his wives. The film doesn’t completely avoid the first two of these themes – it might be impossible – but the way they are treated is of the hagiographical variety. Instead, the film portrays Lewis as a charming, cheerful rebel — a narcissistic, loveable extrovert who loves living life to the fullest. That may be partially true, but it’s clearly far from the full picture, and the film’s inability to go further is frustrating.

What trouble in the head What remains is strong archival footage, with several song performances shown in full: many of these scenes showcase Lewis’s appeal as a performer, as well as his talent at sweetly strumming ivory tips during a piano meltdown. He is shown to be almost as gifted at country and gospel (some of his vocal work is of truly excellent quality) as he was at the electrifying brand of rock ‘n’ roll that has made him famous. But the use of clips also begins to translate the film’s theme at the end: Lewis’ career, despite its length, wasn’t incredibly varied, and so a umpteenth video of him finally standing at the keyboard and with his foot hitting the keys does his music a disservice, makes it banal. What started out as an interesting insight into his musicality turns tiring – a grueling marathon.

So does Lewis himself, who from the evidence of his on-camera segments (none of them new, all recycled) seems like an engaging character if you can see past violence and pedophilia. Lewis’ megalomania is charmingly candid at first, and Coen (or whoever shot these clips) manages a few laughs at the singer’s naïve assessment of his own abilities. But by the end of the show, it feels sweet to hear Lewis Kvetch talk about how he could have been as tall as Elvis, or play the piano better than his cousin, or have a god-given talent, or whatever phrase he might use to describe great do. The film does Lewis a disservice by avoiding the trickier stuff (for example, there would have been as much room to elaborate on Lewis’ family background, which by all appearances is quite extraordinary, with dozens of uncles, aunts and cousins, many of whom were performers) in favor of these simpler considerations.

Without the imprimatur of Ethan Coen, Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in the Head would have considered the durability of a snowflake in hell, but as the standard order for a one-of-a-kind artist towards the end of a life fully lived, quite literally, here are a few simple pleasures to be had. Alternatively, the wiki hack mentioned above plus a two-minute YouTube search for “Great Balls of Fire” should do the trick.

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