While it's not an entirely unenjoyable movie, Memphis is a tragic waste of all the talent evident in its creative team. We are ushered into the titular city - treated more like an extraterrestrial world by filmmaker Tim Sutton - through a collection of beautiful establishing shots, welcomed to meet the molting town, its fraying residents, and the general fog of shortsighted malaise that hangs above the lot. But the promise made by these early images is one that Sutton has no intention of keeping; it appears that with Memphis, Sutton wants to give his audience something to look at and nothing more.
The writer/director doesn't seem to have any intention of bringing us closer to Memphis, to its inhabitants, or even to the de facto hero of the picture: the dangerously eccentric musician Willis Earl Beal (playing an apparently non-fictionalized version of himself). We watch - and that's the operative word - Willis struggle with his art, his relationships, and his sanity, though we are never beckoned close enough to feel any of his pangs or toils on a personal level. He, like the beautiful scenery of Memphis, is just something to look at. And, in the film's more malicious moments, something to point at.
Beyond resulting in boredom (inevitably, no matter how striking the vision of cinematographer Chris Dapkins or how vivid the canvas with which he is blessed, we can't help but long for something, anything to happen) the film even winds up feeling like an act of cruelty. Sutton's distance from his characters - subjects, more accurately - is palpable throughout as his journey into Memphis seems more like a trip to an aquarium than a stay among this community.
But the potential is real. Sutton's command of rhythm is present; Dapkins' artistry is remarkable. It's a shame that with these tools at their disposal - including the enchanting land of Memphis itself - the team members didn't set out to create a world that their viewers might actually get to visit.