CANY – Most in the film industry thought that Ethan Cohen had finished making films. Ethan too.

But on Sunday, Cohen will screen at the Cannes Film Festival his first documentary, “Jerry Lee Lewis: Problems in the Head,” a film that was unknown until the festival’s announcement last month. The film, which A24 will be distributing later this year, is a stunning portrait of a rock and roll and country legend, almost entirely made up of archival footage, with exciting long performances rather than talking heads.

This is Cohen’s first film with his brother Joel, with whom for three decades he has formed one of the most cohesive and steadfast partnerships in the films. But lately they have parted; last year Joel made “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” a film that he speculated would never have interested his brother. Now Ethan is also preparing with his wife, editor Tritia Cook (who has made many Cohen films as well as “Trouble in the Head”), a lesbian sex comedy they wrote together 15 years ago.


“Jerry Lee Lewis: Problems in the Head” began with their longtime T-Bone employee Burnett, who in 2019 recorded a gospel album with 86-year-old Lewis. The film, as Cohen and Cook noted in an interview before the premiere in Cannes, touches on some of the more complex parts of Lewis ’legacy. (He married his 13-year-old cousin in the early 1920s, then Lewis’s third marriage.) But it mostly revives the stunning power of the music dynamo for “Whole Lotta Shakin ‘Goin’ On,” “Great Balls of Fire.” and “Me and Bobby McGee.”


AP: Many thought you, Ethan, were no longer interested in filmmaking. What has changed?

COHEN: What has changed is that I started to get bored. I was with Trish in New York at the start of the closing. So, you know, it was all a little scary and claustrophobic. And T-Bon Burnett, our longtime friend, approached us – in fact, more Trish than I did – to ask if we wanted to make this film mostly in archival footage. We could do it at home.


KUK: It was like a home movie project. We are both big fans of his music. I had some issues with other parts of Jerry Lee’s life. I said, “I don’t know if I want to touch on this.” But in the end it was a lot of fun. Honestly, T-Bone came to us two weeks after the pandemic, so it saved lives.

AP: Ethan, what stopped your desire to act in movies?

COHEN: Oh, nothing happened, of course, nothing dramatic. You start as a child and want to make a movie. All on enthusiasm and gung-ho, let’s go make a movie. And the first film is just fun. And then the second film is very hilarious, almost as interesting as the first. And after 30 years it’s not that it’s not fun, but it’s more work than it was. Joel felt the same, but not to the same extent as I did. It is an inevitable byproduct of aging. And the last two films we made, me and Joel together, were really tough in terms of production. I mean, really hard. So if you don’t need to do that, you go at a certain point: why am I doing this?


KUH: Too western can.

COHEN: It just got a little old and hard.

AP: When you say “hard,” was it related to the industry ecosystem?

COHEN: Not at all, although it has obviously changed beyond recognition from where we started. But no, it was a production experience and I did it – I don’t know how many years, maybe 35 years. It was an experience of making a film. More grind and less fun.

AP: Do you have something turned back because you are preparing to make a film together this summer?

COHEN: Again, these are all circumstances. We finished this quite a long time ago and we were still sitting. We had an old script and we thought, “Oh, we have to do this. That would be fun. ” This is the film we are preparing.

COOK: I don’t want to speak on behalf of Ethan, but I know for myself that at some point I stopped cutting, largely because my priorities changed. And now our kids have grown up and we’re still getting along and having fun doing things together. Joel and Ethan, we wrote a few things like that and they always said, “We’ll put them in a drawer. The kids will find them one day. ”Now we’re here like,“ OK, let’s do it. Let’s open the raffle and see if anyone wants to make this movie.


AP: Do you expect, Ethan, that you and Joel will continue to take different paths to the movies?

COHEN: Oh, I don’t know. Going your own way seems to suggest that this may be the end. But none of this happened definitively. None of the decisions are final. We can make another movie. I don’t know what my next film will be after that. The pandemic happened. I turned into a big kid, got bored and quit, and then a pandemic happened. Then other things happen, and who knows?

AP: Have you always considered “Trouble in Mind” archival, with no talking heads?

COHEN: The film has a story that preceded our participation. It was originally conceived as more for the evangelical session that T-Bone prepared with Jerry Lee in 2019. Along the way, they gathered a lot of archival footage. Archival footage was accumulating. It seemed wiser to talk about Jerry Lee than about this particular session. We have advanced this, perhaps even further.


COOK: When T-Bone brought this to us originally, he described what he wanted as a tonal poem. I don’t think we did that. (laughs)

COHEN: Yeah, that sounds a little fruity.

COOK: But we didn’t want from the start just a bunch of talkative heads, especially if they weren’t Jerry Lee.

COHEN: T-Bon unequivocally wanted the film to start with that performance on the “Ed Sullivan Show” with “She woke me up to say goodbye.” And he wanted it to end “Another place, another time.” And we said, “Oh (swearing), that’s great.” He talked about all the performances. We said, “Oh, great. So you’re talking about a good movie.”

AP: The vast majority of you have worked in feature films. How often have you thought about making a documentary? Do you watch a lot of documents?

COOK: I made a short documentary many years ago called “Where the Girls Are” at the Dina Shore Golf Tournament. All in all, we both love documentaries. Frederick Wiseman and Maisley and Penebaker and Barbara Coppel. All of these are senior documentarians.


COHEN: Why are they all old?

KUH: We are old.

COEN: Have you seen the Beatles documentary? It was fantastic. damn it.

AP: The further we move away from mid-century American films and music, the more it seems to me that it was such a fertile period of creation that will never happen again. Like: no matter where Jerry Lee Lewis comes from, no one comes.

COHEN: I totally agree. As if, yes, now everything is gone.

KUK: Things don’t turn out that way. For Jerry Lee, when he was young, attending a blues club was nothing he didn’t have access to before, and it became that incredible passion. Everything is so large now, so global – not necessarily bad – but it does not seem to have the same passion as in the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s.

AP: When you see him perform, his hands go up and down like pistons, he’s such a dynamo that you can’t help but look and think about where he came from.


COHEN: Musicians are freaks. I mean the best way.

KUK: He’s talking about the Pentecostal church. It seems that he was overwhelmed by this passion for the game. I just remember being hypnotized when we first started watching the footage.

COHEN: Viewing archival footage was a blessing once in a lifetime, but also a curse. Because he also did his share of (obscene) things.

AP: What are your personal thresholds in the artist’s behavior and in the art they do? “Trouble in the head” is clearly not seeking condemnation.

COHEN: If it’s a good movie, so be it. What should we do with this? That’s right. This is a permissible question. That’s what makes the film interesting. How do you reconcile this magnetic performer with this flaw? It’s kind of – I mean, none of the Beatles married their 13-year-old cousin – but it’s kind of like the Beatles movie and why it’s so exciting. You go: Wow. These are great cultural figures and people smaller than life. That’s what’s striking.


Jerry Lee is about the same. I don’t think any reasonable person would ask to ban music because his character had certain flaws. Who imposes such a choice? All the glory to T-Bone for giving us the opportunity and saying it would be about Jerry Lee, about this musician, not about having our heads tell us what to think about Jerry Lee, or that we are editorial , tell viewers what to think of Jerry Lee. All of these things aren’t recipes for making a good movie and don’t serve Jerry.


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