A boy sits idle on his bike, staring us down with an impassive stare. Then he rides off and our protagonist, real life blues singer and poet Willis Earl Beal, wanders down a street in Memphis and into the aisle of Peace Baptist Church, seeking inspiration for his album, something he does for much of the film; a journey that takes him to visit strip clubs and prostitutes, hang out with homeboys, and endure fierce arguments with his girlfriend and producers along the way.
Shot on location, often with a hand held camera and with cinematographer Chris Dapkins using the beautiful natural Memphis light, Tim Sutton employs an unrelenting cinema verite style, which by turns caresses and frustrates the audience into a kind of paralyzed acceptance of the film’s bewildered speechless fictional eloquence. The filmmakers shun touristy Memphis and elect to focus on its working classes, leafy overgrown streets and empty warehouses – always played out to the drone of a Memphis train, sometimes used in brilliant contrapuntal style with Beal’s own music, and sometimes as an ugly juxtaposition. The result is resounding truth telling about the reality of being a flailing musician in a world which constantly makes real demands upon someone whom we soon come to see as not a person at all, but rather as a vehicle through which his poetry and music must flow.
This struggle should grab audiences and put them on Beal’s side. From the word go we are willing for him to sing, and to sing for a long time, and at last, in the third act, we get a few minutes of Beal’s great voice and poetry, until Beal frustratingly throws himself down shouting ‘ I’m suffering Black Man’s Mississippi Blues’. Beal eventually takes himself off to the woods in true Thoreau style and lives off the land, subjugating himself in his own particular magical fantasy, trying to conjure up his dying talent, and all the while, losing touch with the people around him.
A film which would need a dedicated distributor, Memphis’ references to sorcery and mysticism are never quite explicit enough and although Beal gives a wonderful picture of a disturbed and preoccupied artist, the reasons behind that are never really explored. Some utterances like ‘I look at the trees. Sometimes I wish I was a tree’ and ‘You find glory by yourself, by being alone’ might alienate some viewers who might wish for something with a little more explanation. However, this is a film which voices itself through metaphor [think the Candelabra Beal inexplicably trails around with him to every different lodging, which however, is never hung up, but instead is propped up on a cardboard box] the film is an essay on the nature of art, how artists live entrenched within their reality and yet seem so far apart from it and dislocated that they could be mad men… and the density of the film’s images and editing makes it seem that the audience too, might never escape this dreamlike artifice.. Something we are reminded about with Beal’s opening words ‘everything is artifice’, though, against this, the film and Sutton, achieves an awful lot of authenticity.