Memphis: Sundance Review

A film of quiet intensity and poetic imagery.

Blues musician Willis Earl Beal stars as a singer-songwriter who dreams big but comes up short on creativity in Tim Sutton’s sophomore feature.

Obscure, lyrical and exhibiting a far more European sensibility than even many American indies, Tim Sutton’s second feature is suffused with deep thoughts and emotions, but demands patience that may be in short supply among audiences.

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A dedicated distributor with the inclination to nurture the film could buoy a specialized release, although home entertainment formats may prove more suitable to the film's sense of quiet intensity. Blues musician Willis (Willis Earl Beal) is stuck, both creatively and emotionally. Unable to come up with enough material for a new album, he struggles to access a creative spark that will get him back on track.

His girlfriend feigns patience, but although she's in love with him, she can't abide his continuous mood swings. Willis meanders around the margins of Memphis, dropping in on a gospel church service in search of motivation, hanging with his thuggish homeboys, frequenting strip clubs and arguing with his producer, but none of it seems to help. He's gradually losing his talent to write music and sing the blues, as well as his ability to relate to people around him, receding into his own dreamlike world.

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An out-of-town trip only pushes him closer to chucking it all, and when he makes the decision to live out in the woods and pursue a solitary existence, his tenuous grip on reality slips even further. There's an awful lot that goes unsaid in Sutton’s second feature -- among the first group of films supported by a Venice Biennale College grant. His enigmatic characters don't do much to fill in the blanks and the exceedingly rudimentary plot itself has little to reveal. 

Beal's performance speaks volumes however, expressing Willis' bewilderment with his diminishing artistic abilities and his search for true "glory" and whatever it actually means to him. Sutton's portrayal of the city of Memphis is far more eloquent, however, sticking to the leafy side streets and local blues clubs rather than the far grander tourist attractions and storied historic districts. Sutton and cinematographer Chris Dapkins are almost fanatical in reproducing unadulterated reality, shooting almost exclusively on location, often with handheld cameras and natural light. Musical performance scenes would have benefited from showcasing the Chicago bluesman's remarkable talents for more extended periods than the snippets of song captured in the film, however. Together with editor Seth Bomse, the filmmakers achieve an erratic visual rhythm that discloses little, creating a dense, impressionistic cinematic style. 

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At times, the film appears to feint toward magical realism, and while Willis claims to believe in sorcery and have the creative power of a wizard, he gets so lost in his own unique brand of mysticism that eventually he may never find his way out.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, NEXT 

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

Director/screenwriter: Tim Sutton Producer: John Baker Director of photography: Chris Dapkins Production designer: Bart Mangrum Music: Willis Earl Beal Editor: Seth Bomse

No rating, 79 minutes