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Memphis (2013)

A strange singer with God-given talent drifts through his adopted city of Memphis with its canopy of ancient oak trees, streets of shattered windows, and aura of burning spirituality. ... See full summary »

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Willis Earl Beal
Larry Dodson
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Amira
Devonte Hull
Lopaka Thomas
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A strange singer with God-given talent drifts through his adopted city of Memphis with its canopy of ancient oak trees, streets of shattered windows, and aura of burning spirituality. Surrounded by beautiful women, legendary musicians, a stone-cold hustler, a righteous preacher, and a wolf pack of kids, the sweet, yet unstable, performer avoids the recording studio, driven by his own form of self-discovery. His journey quickly drags him from love and happiness right to the edge of another dimension. Written by Sundance Film Festival

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17 January 2014 (USA)  »

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Willis Earl Beal: I created this. I imagined it into existence.
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Organic, soulful and meditative. The quiet pain of inspiration running dry.
12 September 2014 | by (Suffolk, England) – See all my reviews

If the city of Memphis is synonymous with anything, it's for being the original hub of the founders of influential music genres, in particular soul, blues and gospel. Countless of musical pioneers found their roots there, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Elvis Presley, B.B. King, to name a fraction of the recognizable names in the list. Tim Sutton's Memphis is overtly titled and it's one that wants you to bear in mind the cultural history and the myths of its past. Willis Earl Beal stars as a figure resembling Willis himself. Like his character, he's an avant garde blues musician, and as it's stated in his introductory scene, he has an album and a film coming out – this one. Many times the film breaks the fourth wall like this (a small throwaway shot sticks out where a bystander asks "are you acting in a movie?") and its cinema verite style makes it feel like it may as well be a documentary.

But it is not a documentary. Sutton is interested in the truth and his abstract style tries its best to uncover it. The film is about the lack of fulfillment in art, established in the introductory scene where Beal states that he believes 'life is artifice.' He's an empty and unsatisfied musician undergoing an existential crisis in the face of the pressure of recording a new record. Beal plays the role very passively, often looking solemn in the background and being grumpy rather than angry during moments of conflict. While the film is incredibly loose, showing its narrative in fragments sandwiched between incidental happenings, the theme of losing artistic inspiration and motivation is easy to connect to, if not necessarily to invest in. Instead, Beal finds himself more interested in self-discovery and contentment in nature, as depicted in frequent Malick- esque flowing shots of trees. However, the community urges him to pursue the music because they claim it is a God given gift, though he considers his talent lost.

The relationship between God and music is a frequent one in cinema, most notably in Amadeus, but it's one that works. The belief in God constantly looms oppressively over the characters and that dynamic adds a thoughtful spiritual stake to the film. The city of Memphis is now a dangerous one, worn out since the innovation of the 60s, and ghosts of its past echo down the streets. The soundtrack to the film is deliberately archaic, comprised mostly of traditional gospel and blues that haven't developed since the heyday. It's presented without a hint of nostalgia, crackling under lo-fi production. It's where the film has its most interesting question. Where can music go? Although it can be a satisfying form of expression, and only somewhat for Beal, there's no room for expansion, and he's constantly feeling that weight and burden. Instead, he claims that glory is not found on the stage, but in solitude. We end up spending many times with characters alone but their actions are ambiguous instead of anything glorified. Nevertheless, it's an interesting theory for the film to address.

It's a soulfully minimalist film, though the camera often glides capturing characters against natural backdrops or has the odd pretty and splendid shot here and there. Its pace is sparse and often drowsy. We often watch characters drift through Memphis silently without a beginning or an end to their journey. It results in something very meditative, yet still sensitive, even if the film doesn't necessarily reflect the volatile world that the characters feel they live in. It has pleasant aesthetics, but nothing edgy enough to crack open the hard shell that constricts the characters. Memphis is a very organic and lyrical film about creative inspiration running dry, but it lacks an emotional flux to really get under its skin. However, its atmosphere grows on you, and is eventually absorbing once you can just enjoy its inconsequential day-in-the-life style and existential interjections. A pondering indie film that is certainly worth watching.

7/10

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