J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Sundance ’14: Memphis

They know the blues in Memphis. One star-in-the-making also happens to be particularly good at giving the blues. In fact, the blues are downright contagious in Tim Sutton’s Memphis, which screens during this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Willis Earl Beal essentially plays a fictionalized version of himself. His electric bluesman is poised to break out, yet he keeps self-sabotaging. When you get him talking, he has some colorful things to say. Unfortunately, like many characters in the film, he is prone to amble about deserted parking lots and other pretentious art cinema backdrops.

Granted, Memphis offers plenty of local color. Sutton often stops by the local Hallelujah church for a fix of gospel choir and ambiguous ruminations on the role faith plays in the lives of its average working class members. Clearly, this is a depressed city (at least this is the case for the neighborhoods Sutton and Beal traverse), but to his credit, Sutton presents a nuanced portrait of the city’s economic and social realities.

Featuring Beal’s tunes and the supplemental music of Scott Bomar, Memphis gets the soundtrack right. However, you would be hard pressed to find a narrative in there.  Still, Beal has two truly great scenes that might be cobbled together into a compelling short.  In contrast, the rest of the film feels like snoozy filler.

Honestly, any film that looks and sounds as good as Memphis should never be such a chore to watch. Beal demonstrates his potential star power, but he needs more to work with than the skeletal bones of Sutton’s screenplay. Overall, it is a real disappointment.  For blues diehards heedless of our warnings, it screens again today (1/22) and Saturday (1/25) in Park City, as part of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

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