MEMPHIS MUSIC MOVIES: FORTY SHADES OF BLUE (2005)
I'm going to be writing about some movies with Memphis music in them for a freelance piece I'm preparing so these entries may read as a little notebook-y. Feel free to skip if you're so inclined.
Writer/director Ira Sachs' 40 Shades Of Blue was one of the films that first got me interested in doing this piece. A washed out mood piece starring Rip Torn as an aging Memphis music producer (who looks a bit like Sam Phillips but whose career seems closer to a Chips Moman or a Dan Penn. Torn's haunting performance really grabbed me, as did a portrait of a place that had drifted away from its moment of greatness. Accepting an award early in the film, Torn says, "“Music is the only valid thing to come out of this whole mess we call an industry. It’s just a moment in time that happened in Memphis that was just pure magic, when the music of the blacks and the whites came together.” But it's a time that's past, both for the city and for Torn. He now lives in a luxurious, lakeside house with a beautiful girlfriend (Dina Korzun) and their young child but the only moments in the film in which he appears even the least bit happy come when he boozes it up with some old music buddies. "Dark End Of The Street" brings him to tears, but he's disconnected from the rest of his life.
The film's as much about Korzun—whose performance is as dead-eyed as it is deep—a Russian emigre whose relationship with Torn is, to all appearances, just a more refined version of a sex-for-survival strategy she's used her entire life. That's too harsh though. She's the most sympathetic character in the film.
Getting back to the music, Torn goes on about growing up with attention divided between white string bands ,the sounds of jukeboxes in black clubs and it's clear he played a large part of bringing them together. But what has he done lately? We see him in the studio, acting with a focus he never has elsewhere, but the focus turns into rage in a flash. This is the intense, method-y Torn of Cracking Up, not the guy from the Men In Black movies. We see him later, contributing a lovely piano line to an ungodly piece of Europop. They drive through Memphis, past old studios and hangout spots now fallen into ruins. They drive to clubs that thump to dance music with no connection to anything like soul. The crowd's all white. He throws a party for himself with music he keeps interrupting for speeches and drunken proposals. By the end, when he begins drunkenly talking about how all he cared about was the the music, his guests pay no attention to him. The good times went away and the togetherness they created goes with them. Maybe it was all an illusion after all.
The music wasn't enough. At film's end there's a nearly wordless driving sequence in which Torn and Korzun both seem to have found a kind of sadness no song could prepare them for.