The opening shot of Tim Sutton’s sophomore feature, Memphis, belongs to the post-George Washington school of dispossessed-and-beautiful filmmaking: a young boy hunched over his bike on a suburban street, his head slowly pivoting and reacting to unseen stimuli, out-of-context lyricism to be savored for its own sake. There’s nothing wrong with the shot, just as there’s little surprising about it—a point that also applies to much of Sutton’s portrait of a self-starting blues-ish musician (Willis Earl Beal, playing a version of himself).
In the studio with session pros whose demand for proper chord changes and slight impatience with their leader’s vagueness is understandable, Beal is a determined eccentric laudably trying to meld his inchoate urges with the resources he’s been given. Despite label pressure, a surplus of unstructured drinking time, and a barn-like space for obsessive lyrical reworking and keyboard-enabled tinkering, he makes no evident headway with his next album, and Memphis is as shorn of structure as its protagonist’s days are devoid of obvious progress. This heavily medicated Beal is comfortable with the idea that he’s both entertaining and inconsequential: As he says, “There’s no glory in bars and there’s no glory in talking for an extended period of time.” The film is best when its star dominates. As a monologist fashioning his own image, Beal can be very funny; his big scene, discussing how he once had sex with the dirt and found comfort in that, is enjoyably shaggy.
Aside from Beal not quite battling his lack of progress, the main tension is the classic musical push-pull between the profane and the sacred. Early on, Beal goes to church but seems uncomfortable, coming to the front but not staying for the rest of the service. At the bar, he’s harangued by an older man about how not buckling down to work is a denial of divine gifts: “I’d hate to be in your shoes, man, where you owe God, ’cause you gon’ have to owe that debt.” Beal tries to split the difference, only half-joking when he calls himself “a wizard,” but he seems as musically and spiritually unmoored at the end as at the beginning.
Sutton pares down the amount of easily parsed narrative information to the point of near self-parody: There’s a shot of a car being broken into, but not who did it, what was taken, or any perceptible fallout. The point seems solely to startle with a sudden hammer smash through the rear window, a rare moment of intentional disruption in a film whose sense of place is tied to its inconsequence. 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.