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Review: ‘Memphis’ is a Cohesively Fragmented Ode to Blues

Review: 'Memphis' is a Cohesively Fragmented Ode to Blues

A talent is a gift. It’s a particular skill of some sort that stands
out above most other qualities in an individual. It defines who that
person is by
bestowing labels that identify such ability. One can be a writer, a
painter, an athlete, and, of course, a musician. But are these
simplifying
denominations only applicable if said person exploits and embraces
that talent as a benign attribute? Is wasting one’s talent a defying act against the
creator? Or is
fame the only indicator that one has achieved his potential?
Willis (Willis Earl Beal) examines all these paradoxes in Tim Sutton’s
fragmented
character study “Memphis,” which  consciously abandons the
constraints of a traditional narrative in order to adopt a much more
abstract perspective.

Uninterested in the riches brought by recognition, Willis is a
musician that relates to his voice and instruments not as creator
commanding his tools,
but simply as devices that exist to bring unpretentious joy. But
those around him don’t think this is such a simple matter. Constantly
reminded that his
otherworldly sensitivity for music should be transformed into either a
profitable product or an offering to God, Willis grows increasingly
indifferent to his own
passion. His lack of ambition and preference for anonymity ostracize
him.


Presented as a series of mostly unrelated vignettes about Willis’ life
that range from candid chats to mundane banter with those around
him, Sutton’s
film is a work that asks for an inferring viewer. One must be willing to
elicit information from each sequence even when it doesn’t seem to be
there. Subtle
dialogue juxtaposed with Willis’ explicit declarations of hate
towards the system construct a picture of a character that wishes to vanish
into humbling
irrelevance. Is as if the beauty he is able to create is a death
sentence hanging over him.

This darkness with its sporadic glimpses of
light is captured
in Willis Earl Beal’s performance. There is a gloomy heaviness to
his movements and tone that add an almost ominous atmosphere to every
scene. It’s hard
to know if he is on the edge of madness or if he will surrender to
the greedy requests. Beal, a musician himself, not only stars in the
film but also
composed the ethereal music that can be heard strategically
throughout the film.

Willis fervently believes that music should remain in an amorphous
state unbounded by technical rules. It must flow without falling in the
trap of
perfection. Applying this concept to his own life, the lone artist
seeks nature and avoids human relationships. Neither church nor his
caring girlfriend
can provide the peace he craves. To convey this unwillingness to
connect, Sutton places his anti-hero in a variety of settings that
confront him with his
numbing fears. Friendship seems like too much commitment, faith is
non-existent, and fame is poison. Although at times this persistent
desire to be
meaningless can become hard to follow just as the film drags us through
its disconnected spaces, Willis retains a powerful magnetism. 

Sutton
aesthetic choices grounded in naturalism blend perfectly with the work
of his non-professional cast. Improvisation and artifice collide in this
experiential work that deals with Blues not as a genre but as a
state of mind. In fact, music is not at the center of the film.
Instead, the process
behind it and the emotional hurdles that drive its creation become
prominent themes.

Willis’ monologues and random interactions with the
camera and its
surroundings tell us more about his conflicted psyche than a handful
of musical numbers would. “Memphis” should not be observed as a film
about a talented
musician, but as a non-conventional quest to decipher whom the
protagonist really is, even if the answers are as elusive as the
narrative arch itself.

“Memphis” is currently playing in NYC and L.A. and will expand to other cities in the upcoming weeks.

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