Artistic malaise is a fertile topic and a serious threat. Past glories eventually start to count for little when the creative juices finally dry up. Musician Willis Earl Beal’s meandering journey through Memphis in search of real glory and the inspiration that has long since abandoned him should offer ample space for a fascinating study but it never really comes off. A charismatic and yet oddly half formed figure, he makes his way through a pretty patchwork of shots that flatter to deceive.
Tim Sutton opens his film with a bang, Beal talking about his pre-ordained greatness and the sorcery he employs to achieve it during an interview. If he’s a sorcerer, he’s not a particularly powerful one as his gift swiftly deserts him. Beal splutters through aborted recording sessions and wanders around Memphis struggling to come to terms with his failure. Crossing his path along the way are a number of unique characters and the city of Memphis itself.
Memphis is at its best when Sutton draws on the murky grandeur of his setting. Wind ripples through the leaves on sun dappled oak trees, water sits listlessly in sleepy storm drains and hazy evening lights glow off the tarmac. Beal drifts in between this, a subdued figure struggling to find his place. Watching his aborted efforts to resuscitate his musical career is almost painful at times. He cautiously plays opening notes only to back down, the rhythm having fled. In the studio, his attempts to go with the flow fall flat when his backing musicians question his improvisation.
Problems come when these moments are revealed to be few and far between. Memphis can’t stretch its slender threads to feature length. Before long, Beal’s own malaise has overtaken the film, draining enjoyment until only a dull shell is left. Attractive as an oak tree under a blue sky is, there are only so many times it needs to fill the screen.
Soon, a painful cycle of repeating images and drawn out shots has been initiated with no end obviously in sight. Proceedings could have been brought to a close at pretty much any point in the second half with very little material impact on the film. As the early admiration for Sutton’s style fades away, it begins to feel like Beal is the not the only person trapped in Memphis.