Even after great success, an artist’s path is rarely clear. A real-estate agent who hits it big can represent more properties, hire more assistants, bring in more commissions and pile on the money. A musician is expected to follow a hit album by turning in another, but it’s not always that easy. Memphis is about an odd bluesman who doesn’t know what to say next or how to say it. While he figures it out, he walks around and says whatever crazy thoughts pop into his head.
Tim Sutton’s movie is a relaxed, contemplative meander through the city with this man and the people in his life. It’s as curious in its rhythms as in its strange, unnamed main character, played by musician Willis Earl Beal. The tone shifts from profundity to absurdity so decisively that it’s never certain whether the goal is high art or a few laughs.
The bluesman has what many dream about: a fan base, a label and a chain of people eager to help complete another great record. But without any new songs, that doesn’t matter. He no longer believes in himself, no longer feels inspired at the piano or confident in his voice. An old music veteran tells him he needs to pay back god for his talent, but he’s not sure he has any left. So he wanders in churches and bars, attics and recording studios, mansions and working-class homes, trying to figure out what he’s doing.
From the character’s introduction, Sutton makes sure that we don’t take this man and his plight too seriously. He stumbles into a TV interview—unaware he’s going to be on camera—and proclaims, “I consider myself a wizard.” He imagines things and conjures them into reality, he says, adding that the pre-magic plan doesn’t necessarily line up with the final product. If anyone considers this wisdom indispensable, the TV crew is not among them. A later speech, about finding glory within one’s self, takes on an even grander theme, and ends on a note that’s even more spectacularly bizarre.
When this bluesman talks—and there are large stretches without much dialogue—sometimes he looks toward the camera, an there’s no reverse shot to see to whom he speaks. He could be talking to himself, or he could be chatting with a friend. Maybe the viewer is his friend. If there’s any hint of the answer, it comes after he’s done rambling. Beal deserves much of the credit for making these speeches so compelling.
The movie slides from image to image as if in a dream, using quiet ambient sound as much as the mesmerizing blues soundtrack. The lack of music in spots nice emphasizes the theme of writer’s block. One shot, of a one-legged man on crutches walking away from camera, prompts the film’s propulsive theme, but abruptly stops when the image cuts, suggesting an inability to hold an idea long enough to bring it to fruition.
While Memphis won’t likely win over many fans of fast-paced narratives, it grows more and more interesting if you’re willing to rock to its sway. Beal and the filmmakers find enough hooks to keep the bluesman more in our minds than he is in his own.
Director: Tim Sutton
Writer: Tim Sutton
Starring: Willis Earl Beal, Constance Brantley, Larry Dodson, Devonte Hull, Lopaka Thomas
Release Date: Sept. 5, 2014