Memphis isn’t what it used to be — especially Beale Street, the former center of the black community, now a haven for tourist traps and mediocre blues bands. Richard Pearce, who shot “Woodstock” and Neil Young’s “Rust Never Sleeps,” uses the city as a metaphor for the road warriors who got their start in west Tennessee: B.B. King, Rosco Gordon, Ike Turner and Bobby Rush. With its tone of disappointment and resignation, “The Road to Memphis” is a vital testimony in support of Martin Scorsese’s “Blues” project: Wait any longer and all the city’s artists will be dead — and all the studios, save for Sun, will have met the wrecking ball.
Sadness permeates “The Road to Memphis,” which tells less about music than it does about its musicians; Memphis has institutionally turned its back on its black heritage since the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and for the last 30 years, the road out of town is the one black artists are far more likely to have traveled.
Pearce trails his subjects like a hunter waiting for birds. He allows some of that downtime to creep into his piece, which posits blues musicians as everyday workers, stripping them of celebrity or glamour.
“Road to Memphis” is about the blues in the here and now — historical footage is kept to a minimum — and it establishes the notion that this remains a hard life for anyone who chooses it. Jim Dickinson, a member of the North Mississippi Allstars and a longtime Memphis producer, is Pearce’s proof that some still find validity in the lifestyle.
Pic’s cornerstone is a reunion show of the four Memphis artists, and Pearce introduces them in a hierarchical scale: King is a passenger in his well-appointed bus; Rush is his own bus driver. Everyone seems to know Ike Turner, whose musical reputation keeps doors open; Gordon pleads for recognition.
King’s presence is the obvious mainstream appeal here. He got his start in Memphis on KDIA, the radio station he revisits in “Memphis” and, with two current DJs, reminisces about jingles and the former station owners who turned it into the first station run by black people in the U.S. He is a weary traveler, yet a model of graciousness.
Rush is the contrast. He drives and repairs his three buses as he roams the chitlin circuit he has been performing on since he left Chicago and its pure blues in the late 1960s.
Rush, like Little Milton, who is also prominently featured in “Road to Memphis,” plays a funky soul version of the blues that parlays temptation, fortitude and the prurient, and one of the best scenes in this series is Rush on the dance floor with one of his backup singers shaking her elastic rump. Proof that it’s all just a show hits home when he drives all night to attend Sunday services that, in the tenor of the music, are just as rocking as Saturday night.
The indifference of locals to Memphis’ black musical roots exasperates Gordon more than the others. His story is one of a man skipped over: Turner discovered him in the early 1950s, and although he never had any major hits, the loping beat on his records was a major influence on the Jamaican musicians who created ska. Gordon dies soon after the concert, and thankfully Pearce doesn’t sentimentalize his passing.