Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Raynesha Hull in Memphis
"It's always difficult to tell a story about nothing happening, and director Tim Sutton is not entirely successful in doing so here." | Photo: Chris Dapkins

Willie Earl Beal is an avant garde musician, here playing an avant garde musician of the same name in a fictional tale that often resembles a documentary, acknowledging the closeness of character and star. It's a meandering trip through Memphis, taking in the modern city and its weighty musical legacy, asking what that legacy means for musicians today.

Shot in fly-on-the-wall style, the film follows Willie as he goes about his daily life, but he isn't always in the foreground. We see his friends, other musicians and members of the local churches engaged in discussion whilst he watches, listens, seemingly yearning for something that may be impossible to find. The church is omnipresent in a city where everything seems to have a spiritual quality, for all that cinematographer Chris Dapkins focuses on the mundane. Willie goes to church, talks the talk, waits for a revelation. They tell him he has God-given talent. Why, then, doesn't inspiration come?

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It's always difficult to tell a story about nothing happening, and director Tim Sutton is not entirely successful in doing so here. Beal is an excellent choice of lead, managing to hold the viewer's attention without ever coming across as so charismatic or dynamic that we question Willie's lack of success. The slow pace is balanced by his talent for setting viewers at ease, so that we drift through the loose narrative without really noticing time passing, only gradually developing a sense of absence that mirrors Willie's own. It's too easy, however, to emerge from the film feeling vaguely bewildered with nothing to take away from the experience. Whilst the frustrated Willie, unable to achieve what he feels he ought to, gradually discovers another way of looking at the world, for the viewer things never quite come together.

As you'd expect, Memphis is musically rich and enjoyable to listen to, but the music is decidedly old fashioned; it's a difficult place to be trying to create a new sound. Sutton makes a bold attempt at taking a new approach to cinema. Sometimes it's not the result but the process that's the thing.

Reviewed on: 08 Feb 2015
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Memphis packshot
A musician strives to find inspiration in a city with an overwhelming history.

Director: Tim Sutton

Writer: Tim Sutton

Starring: Willis Earl Beal, Constance Brantley, Larry Dodson, Devonte Hull, Lopaka Thomas

Year: 2014

Runtime: 82 minutes

Country: US

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