Memphis opens with the horn of a distant train barreling its way across the city’s outskirts as a young boy rides his bike down an open street. The sounds of industry, though not literally speaking to the specificities of the Memphis metropolitan area, aren’t unlike the political rhetoric emanating from Hal Phillip Walker’s campaign van during the opening of Robert Altman’s Nashville. In each case, the spatial location of sound is key. For Altman, lies are spoken and out in the open, fluidly moving through a place that’s ill-prepared to handle an impending, epochal conflict between art and politics. For director Tim Sutton, any such discussion is to remain on the periphery, evocative of socio-economic deterioration rather than explicitly, visibly rendered. These consequences are tied to race, certainly, as a young black musician named Willis (Willis Earl Beal) undergoes spiritual and existential tribulation. But Sutton’s matters are as equally tied to class, as the various signposts throughout the city suggest religious renewal as a false, systematic replacement for both physical and economic loss.
These points inform Memphis’s series of colorful, gentle vignettes, each of which prizes character and motivation as secondary to the pangs of region-specific textures. Sutton would rather follow Willis as he walks the streets, flapping his arms like a bird or gently singing as he drives through town. There’s little by way of urgency or deadlines as it pertains to characters, insofar as having clearly defined goals or problems. Rather, Sutton prefers a documentary-like realism, such as a church service that appears to actually be unfolding, with Sutton and his crew merely recording the ceremony. Yet there are several highly composed and richly saturated sequences that dispense with realism altogether, like a recording session in which Willis is shot in close-up with a monochromatic blue light covering his face, reminiscent of the thematic color play used by Krzysztof Kieślowski in his Three Colors trilogy and the reds and blues of the nightclub in Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues. These potential allusions remain nascent, however, as Sutton never fully gestures to one or the other, instead embracing their visual sensibilities to inform his own tale of era-specific sublimity-cum-forlornness.
If Sutton lacks Altman’s virtuoso knack for characterization, perhaps that’s because he so comprehensively eludes outward narrative explication, that the implications of not only what lies at the periphery, but the periphery itself, becomes the film’s primary focus of articulation. Every character in the film is a marginal figure except for Willis, though his music career is left mostly off screen, except for his agent telling him, “We need a record,” early on, or an older associate praising Willis for his “God-given” talent. But there are no music sequences to speak of, aside from Willis briefly playing by himself in an attic where the air vents resemble a series of labyrinthine tentacles.
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. 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. Sutton finds solace for his characters through simple pleasures, such as when a mother convincingly tells her son to “smile more,” but these delicate interactions can only be a respite from larger, institutional factors that force-feed religious conviction as a switcheroo for secular cultural and economic stability.