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.
Alt-blues musician Willis Earl Beal provided the score and also stars as Willis, a successful singer-songwriter in between records and in a creative malaise. Willis wanders around the title city, drifting among old acquaintances, occasionally making music and in general wondering what it’s all about. Meanwhile, others circle trying to woo him in one direction or another, be they the congregants at a local Baptist church, the industry types who want his work or the sort-of girlfriend (Constance Brantley) who sees through any star posturing he attempts.
Memphis has a meandering quality – think David Gordon Green’s George Washington – but it’s deceptively disciplined. The overlapping audio, whether it consists of dialogue or music, creates eddies in which the narrative can pause, gather itself and move smoothly into the next impressionistic scene. Writer-director Tim Sutton, working with editor Seth Bomse, carefully creates continuity from one moment to the next, as when Willis’ observation that “life is artifice” is immediately followed by him getting a trim, a careful line being cut in his hair.
There isn’t much talking in that scene, yet much of Memphis does have a barbershop air to it. As Willis ambles about town, visiting groups gathered on a street corner, hangers-on at a bar and a game of dominoes, among other spots, the chatter is at once playful and existential. Someone is as likely to tease Willis for his wardrobe as they are to say, regarding his listlessness, “You owe God.”
Memphis has a meandering quality, but it’s deceptively disciplined.
This is one of the central tensions of Memphis – what is “ours” and what is God’s. On his walks, Willis continually finds himself overshadowed by street signs declaring things like “Enter His gates” or “Jesus hears.” Even his attic studio is a reminder; it has mundane features, such as insulated air ducts, but also the ostentatiously vaulted ceiling of a cathedral.
Where do our gifts come from? What do we owe to them? What do we owe to others, in the way that we use them? In pondering these questions, Memphis suggests there is a crucial distinction to be made between art and the artist. The movie never really lauds Willis for his talent, as most musician portraits do. In fact, the film goes out of its way to deconstruct Willis’ moments of performance. At one point, there is a striking, blue-light close-up of him singing, yet the movement of his mouth doesn’t match the music we hear. The separation is clear.
This is a lot for a novice actor to carry, and it’s worth asking whether Beal is magnetic enough to play such an interior part without becoming dull or (worse) self-indulgent. You can feel the strain – he anchors some of the improvisational moments far more solidly than others – yet he also has a doggedness that demands attention. In fact, it seems that Beal is directly aiming for some sort of anti-charisma. In comparison to so many studio films, this is a rare portrait of a thoughtful, introspective young black man. In this way, the performance functions as a retort to Hollywood’s modern-day minstrels.
Not that Memphis depends entirely on Beal, even if he is its central figure. Sutton and cinematographer Chris Dapkins manage some magical imagery, whether it’s the shot of Willis against a wall of mannequins in a wig shop (artifice again) or the recurring image of a glowing chandelier. Early on, Willis tells an interviewer that he considers himself a “wizard” who has conjured his musical success by magic. Later on, that chandelier appears in an abandoned house, brightly gleaming even though there is no source of electricity to be found.
Another visual motif involves the towering, overarching trees that dominate certain stretches of Memphis’ streets, acting in opposition to the instances of urban blight that we also see. At one point, an industry rep tells Willis that they need a record. He responds, “We need to be trees,” then launches into a riff on their life-giving properties. In its inquisitiveness, unhurriedness and gentle sense of yearning, Memphis does something similar. This is art that helps us breathe.