Directed by Tim Sutton
Titled Memphis, the film stars musician Willis Earl Beal who spends his time, “surrounded by beautiful women, legendary musicians, a stone-cold-hustler, a righteous preacher, and a wolfpack of kids,’ while working less on his music and more on the state of his soul.”
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★★★½ review by Mike D'Angelo on Letterboxd
When George Washington appeared 15 years ago, everybody (including me) talked about its debt to Malick; now I keep seeing films that are clearly indebted to George Washington but don't much resemble Malick at all. Funny how that works. Sutton's deathly allergy to narrative is at once Memphis' strength and its limitation—the nebulous strands he provides can't possibly detract/distract from the sheer pleasure of his images and rhythm, but it never feels as if the movie is building to anything, to the point where its scenes could be reassembled in almost any order (in the grand scheme of things, that is—specific edits are often very sharp) and its ending feels completely arbitrary. I mostly dug it, because it kept catching me off guard with its shambling lyricism in a way that, say, Putty Hill did not. Flirted with the idea of bailing, because it is doggedly aimless, but Sutton served up this shot out of nowhere, with zero context, at my standard W/O point, and that was all she wrote.
★★★½ review by Disgustipated on Letterboxd
At first, I thought this was going to be a really interesting film about a wizard. During a TV interview, the host asks musician Willis Earl Beal if he ever imagined that he would be a successful star. Willis responded that of course he did, after all he willed it to be so. It's magic. Not the magic wand kind, nor the voodoo kind but the kind where if you envision something and believe in it, then it will come to pass.
Instead, this is a meandering character study of an artist as he rambles on through a tumult of personal crisis. The magic is not working anymore and Willis is bereft of anything of importance to say. Instead we see a lot of scowling, frustration and bitterness. He still looks cool when wearing sunglasses in the studio but otherwise he is like a cicada that has shed it's skin, but he is the skin that has been left behind.
A major reason for why I liked this film is the photography and the mood and emotions that it evoked. Images of dilapidated and abandoned buildings juxtaposed with portraits of a young woman playing and laughing with a small child, and the big goofy grin of a young boy riding his bike around the neighbourhood create something sublime out of this half-forgotten town. These images show something of the irrepressible nature of the human spirit despite one's material condition, even if it feels like a little bit of a lie.
So while a big part of this film fell into a bunch of cliches about brooding troubled artists needing to go find themselves, all the while inadvertently pushing away everyone around them, I still liked this film. It is a sad, beautiful kind of film that reminds me of both the heartache and the joy that we can find in everyday life.
★★★★½ review by Josh Larsen on Letterboxd
Memphis drifts between the earthy and the celestial, with a scratchily sublime soundtrack to match. This is a confounding movie, in its aims and its achievements, mainly because it evokes a transience that’s never quite resolved.
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★★★★ review by Jordan Brooks on Letterboxd
With Memphis, Tim Sutton chooses to forgo traditional narrative and cinematic structure, and instead focuses on presenting the mood of a specific time and place. Perfectly at home in any decade from 1950 until now, Memphis elegantly captures its eponymous location as it sombrely glides from subject to subject.
Though the exact level of veracity is difficult to ascertain given his crazy Wikipedia page, Memphis is a somewhat fictionalized biography of Willis Earl Beal that follows him as he explores his surroundings and grapples with accepting his enviable talents. Sutton explores Beal’s personality (an uneasy mix of reflective quietude and explosive laughter) and his movements through space. The film itself has a definite progression, but with very little dialogue and even less structure, it is impossible to create a definite timeline. Memphis is presented in the reverse direction of Beal’s own bizarre backstory, aimlessly observing his descent into self-imposed poverty. Jumping, often startlingly so, from image to image, Sutton evokes the essence of Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder; usually, the only signal of impending change is the sound of gospel or one of Beal’s own hypnotizing pieces.
★★★½ review by davidehrlich on Letterboxd
"I am the deep down clown, you better throw me a bone
Cause I'll be making that sound, when they leave me alone
With the pots and pans, my voice and my hands
And my spoon drumstick, with this innocuous trance
You got to give me a chance to advance this romance
So when I pick out my 'fro I have a place I can go."
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