“I couldn’t figure out if I was acting or telling the truth. That’s the way it is with my life. I’m trying to be real but I can’t. Or, if I am being real people don’t recognize it as that.” That’s musician Willis Earl Beal, as quoted by Filmmaker‘s Scott Macaulay when Tim Sutton‘s Memphis saw its Sundance premiere in January. Scott adds that “Beal—not from the film’s eponymous city, but like his character, a mysterious figure whose obliquely impassioned DIY soul soars over crackly, homemade backdrops—inflects Sutton’s film with his own very artful dodgery. Indeed, the spirit behind his music seems to hang over the film as well.” And he points us to Jon Blistein‘s profile of Beal for Rolling Stone. Filmmaker‘s also run Alexandra Byer‘s Sundance diary and her talk with production designer Bart Mangrum.
Memphis screens on Sunday as part of BAMcinemaFest, and the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody notes that “Beal plays a blues singer of the same name, who is facing a devastating artistic crisis—a composing and performing block. His desperate efforts at self-healing take him on a spiritual journey through the city of the title as he encounters friends, confidants, and religious counselors dispensing hard-earned wisdom. Memphis itself plays a leading role in the film, by way of richly textured, sunlight-imbued images of streets and houses, churches and roads. With his loamy mosaic of drifting moods and troubled memories, Sutton offers a pictorial translation of the blues, a vision of an American classicism sheltered by the urban landscape’s mystical embrace.”
Memphis “suggests that genuine artistry is a gift from God—not granted to everyone, and easily yanked away,” wrote the Dissolve‘s Noel Murray in January. “I was a fan of Sutton’s lyrical, likably aimless debut feature Pavilion, and while I can’t call Memphis a step down in quality—because it’s similar in style, and similarly assured—it does reach toward something it can’t quite grasp. Sutton mostly just turns the camera on Beal and lets him goof around, in ways that very much feel staged and not ‘natural.’ The movie is the most aggravating kind of sloppy: the kind where every go-nowhere moment and failed experiment can be explained away as part of the artistic process. That said, Memphis is certainly memorable, and fleetingly true and beautiful.”
“Similar in tone to Matthew Porterfield’s breakout sophomore feature Putty Hill, Sutton’s second effort is filled with soul while foregrounding its inventive formalism,” writes Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn. “‘Life is artifice,’ Beal says in a television interview at the beginning. By retaining an otherworldly quality while also tapping into the nuances of everyday life, Memphis proves he’s right.”
In the Hollywood Reporter, Justin Lowe finds Memphis ” suffused with deep thoughts and emotions, but demands patience that may be in short supply among audiences.” But at Twitch, Ben Umstead argues that “Memphis is that rare and soulful film that causes one to remember why going to the cinema can be one of the greatest joys in life.”
Andrew Chan talks with Sutton for BAM.
Updates, 6/19: BlackBook‘s Hilary Weston talks with Sutton “about his connection with Willis, melding artifice and reality, and the exploration of spirituality. And as a bonus, Sutton also shared a look inside his sketches and storyboards for the film.”
And Henry Stewart interviews Sutton for Brooklyn Magazine.
Update, 7/10: For J.J. Murphy, Memphis is “a kind of ghost story, in which the ghosts never quite become fully manifest. Yet we feel their traces in virtually every shot of this magnificent and stunning film. They are there in the rustling trees and boarded-up wooden shacks, in the distant sound of the trains, in the kinetic energy found in the black church, in the piercing reaction shots of the characters, especially the young kids, and in the tracking shots that don’t so much follow the participants as anticipate their eventual presence within a shot.”
Update, 7/19: “The images seem ‘made,’ ‘aesthetic,’ ‘pictorial,’ crafted by a definite author,” writes Craig Keller, “but they are strong and not simply ‘pretty’ or ‘arty’ because they bind tensely the urban/exurban world (it’s right to say that Memphis is a ‘city’ but we need a broader conception of that word) with nature in discrete frames over and over.”
Update, 9/1: “The music in Memphis is the city itself as well as a subtle suggestion that Sutton’s own digital cinema is just as elusive and intangible as Willis’s unwavering sense of dissatisfaction,” writes Clayton Dillard at the House Next Door. “Character and director are one, as Sutton displays a series of technological advancements, from the train to an electronic keyboard to a video-game arcade, to intimate how difficult sociological stability becomes within a milieu that’s consistently reshaping to further displace those without power.”
Update, 9/2: “I don’t think it’s up to a white filmmaker to make this film, but I do think it’s up to an outsider to make the film that I made.” Tim Sutton, talking Memphis with Gary M. Kramer in BOMB.
Updates, 9/4: “While Memphis is similar in style and in assurance to the lower-ambition Pavilion, it reaches toward something it can’t fully grasp,” finds Noel Murray at the Dissolve. “Its lack of discipline is all the more aggravating because Sutton has structured the movie in such a way that every go-nowhere moment can be explained away as part of the process of exploring fakery and creativity.”
But for Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir, “Memphis really is a portrait of a history-rich American city as experienced by one man’s odyssey through its oak-shaded streets, its crumbling old houses, its whiskey-soaked bars and storefront holiness churches. I was reminded more than once of James Joyce’s Ulysses, except with Memphis playing the role of Dublin and Beal’s outsider-insider character as Leopold Bloom, and that may not be accidental.”
Vadim Rizov at the AV Club: “Much of Memphis seems content to idle in the same vein as its protagonist; amiably sleepy as it is, the movie could stand to commit to any narrative direction that would place it outside the realm of cryptic inertia. Constantly just dodging visual cliché, Sutton tries to isolate moments of beauty and frustration within a specific milieu. Sometimes he captures resonant moments in bars and in stray dialogue; other times, his purposelessness seems less like a strategy and more like an evasive feint.”
For Time Out‘s Keith Uhlich, “it feels like Sutton is constantly trying to force our empathy with Beal’s creative-cum-spiritual dilemma rather than let it develop organically, and it makes for an exasperating experience.”
“Memphis plays like a vaunted director’s greatest folly,” suggests the Voice‘s Alan Scherstuhl. “That’s a compliment…. Here’s everything that might illuminate a story, but none of the story itself. It’s just the coloring. Just the curiosities. Just the stuff that every other director would, with regrets, chop out.”
“Eventually straddling an invisible line between reality and dream,” writes Benjamin Mercer for the L, “Memphis winds up making the former feel like its own play of visions—theologies, mythologies, and works of art, none of whose creation comes easy.”
Update, 9/5: “Memphis is a gorgeous, gorgeous movie,” grants Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com, “but it is also proof that the woozy, opaque mode of American independent filmmaking has its limits.”
Updates, 9/7: “Tim Sutton is the antidote to the modern American indie,” writes David Ehrlich, introducing his interview for Little White Lies. “Sutton is making movies unlike anyone else, his unique process resulting in movies that are unlike anything else. A calm and clean-cut Brooklyn dad who, in his early 40s, is just at the start of his filmmaking career, Sutton has already evinced a rare gift for reconciling artistic vision with financial reality.”
Jen Ortiz talks with Willis Earl Beal for GQ.