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Film Review: ‘Memphis’

Willis Earl Beal gives a magnetic performance as a flailing musician in Tim Sutton's digressive, daringly experimental film.

Cast:

Willis Earl Beal, Lopaka Thomas, Constance Brantley, Devonte Hull, John Gary Williams, Larry Dodson.

Vibrantly shot on location in the titular Tennessee city, “Memphis,” the second film from Brooklyn-based writer-director Tim Sutton (“Pavillion”), is a digressive, daringly experimental study of a flailing musician, magnetically played by accomplished bluesman and poet Willis Earl Beal. Supported by a grant from the Venice Biennale College (the movie premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year), Sutton’s eye-popping, patience-testing pic reflects European and American verite sensibilities far more than the bulk of Stateside indie fare. The result poses a serious challenge to theatrical distribution and even to U.S. festival favor, but adventurous music-film lovers will appreciate Sutton’s stylistic transgressions.

In the eccentric, dreamlike pic, Beal plays Willis, a moody Memphis musician who believes he has supernatural powers but seems to have little control over what has become a creative slump. As Willis wanders Memphis, Sutton acts more as a documentarian than a narrative storyteller, trailing the character as he visits a strip club and a gospel church in between long stretches of simply walking the streets. Emblematic of the film’s preference for pictorial beauty over plot development is an unforgettable scene of Willis laying down tracks in a studio, his face bathed in blue light.

Cinematographer Chris Dapkins, with the help of editor Seth Bomse’s poetically driven assembly, captures the aura of working-class Memphis through shots designed to set a meditative mood rather than adhere to protagonist-driven convention. Long, impressionistic sequences of young boys riding bikes, a one-legged man walking with crutches, and strippers plying their trade discourage the audience from interpreting the film as fiction, which is bound to frustrate and annoy a great many viewers and excite a relative few.

Beal’s aptly meandering blues score helps maintain the film’s sense of mystery and give it license to bounce in and out of various Memphis locations. Supporting actors, including Stax label veterans Larry Dodson and John Gary Williams, are spotty but entirely in keeping with Sutton’s bid for authenticity over artifice. On balance, the tech package of the modestly budgeted pic is adequate.

Film Review: 'Memphis'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Next), Jan. 22, 2014. (Also in Venice Film Festival — Biennale College, Cinema.) Running time: 82 MIN.

Production:

A Biennale di Venezia presentation of a Visitfilms production. Produced by John Baker. Co-producer, Alexandra Byer.

Crew:

Directed, written by Tim Sutton. Camera (color, HD), Chris Dapkins; editor, Seth Bomse; music, Willis Earl Beal; music supervisor, Bianca Grimshaw; production design, Bart Mangrum; costume designer, Jami Villers; sound, Micah Bloomberg; sound designer, Bomse; casting, Eleonore Hendricks.

With:

Willis Earl Beal, Lopaka Thomas, Constance Brantley, Devonte Hull, John Gary Williams, Larry Dodson.

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