×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Memphis’

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

With:

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.

Popular on Variety

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.

More Film

  • EL-VERANO-QUE-VIVIMOS-PRESS-CONFERENCE

    Warner Bros. Grabs Atresmedia, Bambú’s 'El verano que vivimos' (EXCLUSIVE)

    SAN SEBASTIAN —    Warner Bros. Pictures Intl. has grabbed near-worldwide distribution rights to “El verano que vivimos,” a romantic melodrama directed by “Fariña” Carlos Sedes and co-produced with Atresmedia Cine, Bambú Producciones and La Claqueta. One of the most awaited local releases of next year, “El verano que vivimos” rolls from August for nine [...]

  • PATRICK

    Watch Trailer to San Sebastian’s ‘Patrick,’ Sold by The Match Factory (EXCLUSIVE)

    SAN SEBASTIAN —  Sales house The Match Factory is launching exclusively via Variety the trailer of “Patrick,” Gonçalo Waddington’s debut feature, as the film world premieres in the Official Selection at the San Sebastian Festival. Screening in main competition, “Patrick” recounts the story of an eight-year old Portuguese boy, Mario, who is re-discovered years later [...]

  • Brad Pitt stars in ONCE UPON

    Quentin Tarantino's 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' Gets Oct. 25 China Release

    Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is scheduled for a China release on Oct. 25, three months after its U.S. debut. The mainland opening will hit after the country’s National Day holiday in the first week of October, which this year marks a key and politically sensitive anniversary — the 70th year of [...]

  • THE-CURSE-OF-THE-HANDSOME-MAN-photo2

    Filmax Acquires International on ‘The Curse of the Handsome Man’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    SAN SEBASTIAN  —  Barcelona-based boutique studio Filmax has acquired international rights to Argentine producer-director Beda Docampo’s “The Curse of the Handsome Man,” produced by Ibón Cormenzana’s Arcadia Motion Pictures alongside Cados Producciones and Damned Besso –based in Spain—in co-production with Cecilia Díez’s Zarlek Producciones (“Medianeras”) in Argentina. The film is backed by Spanish public broadcaster [...]

  • La-mala-familia

    Javi Tasio Talks ECAM Incubator Title ‘La Mala Familia’

    SAN SEBASTIAN  —  Via their BRBR collective, filmmakers Nacho A. Villar and Luis Rojo have directed award winning music videos, and commercias. Now they’ll make the leap to features with “La Mala Familia,” a gritty urban drama set in the outskirts of Madrid. Variety spoke with the film’s producer, Javi Tasio, who developed this project at ECAM’s [...]

  • Charlie-Chaplin-and-Horse-Roy-Export-Co

    Carmen Chaplin to Direct ‘Charlie Chaplin, a Man of the World’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    SAN SEBASTIAN  — Director-producer-actress Carmen Chaplin is set to direct “Charlie Chaplin, a Man of the World,” a theatrical documentary feature which will add a hardly-explored new facet to the creator of the Tramp, one of the most iconic cinema characters in popular consciousness, plumbing Chaplin’s Romani roots and heritage. Marking the first time that [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content