Sunday, January 07, 2007


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.

When I first conceived this piece on Memphis music movies a completely forgot about Hustle And Flow. I was thinking of old school Memphis blues, country, soul, and rock and roll and forgetting that new music is still getting made there. I blame the autumnal tone of 40 Shades Of Blue and the nostalgia of the unsatisfying doc Only The Strong Survive (which I'll also be writing about. They spend their time driving past the ruins of the old music shrines and never acknowledge that there might be music bubbling up from those ruins? Is there a style of music made famous in Memphis that didn't work its way up from the economic bottom?

That's certainly the vision present by H&F, which impressed me more this time around than last. I loved the Terrence Howard performance but found the underdog-against-the-odds story a little pat. Still do, but it worked for me this time. Maybe it's because this time it played more like a superior b-movie than a failed arthouse movie. But I digress...

H&F works well as a companion piece to 40 Shades. Where Rip Torn plays a man whose found the limits of what music can provide him--spiritually if not financially--Howard plays a guy who's just finding out where music can take him. And where it can take him as a lot more to do with his soul than his wallet. From an early scene in which Howard cries listening to a spiritual in church to a finale that leaves him not on top but somewhere a few notches up from where he was before, it's much more about finding oneself as an artist and a human being than as a commercial success. In fact, commercial success, as embodied by Ludacris' character Skinny Black--a Memphis born rapper who's found great success--is treated with no small amount of suspicion. Early on, Howard looks at the cover of a Skinny Black CD as if he's not sure what about him bugs him. By the time they meet, he's figured it out. He gets Black's attention with weed and holds it with the words "What the fuck happened to you?" He explains that Memphis misses him and delivers an impassioned monologue about how, when the present civilization crumbled arcehologists would sort through the rubble of New York and Paris but, "If a nigga wanted to know about me, wanted to know about Memphis, all they gotta do is find your first underground tape.”

A city can be defined by music but it can also be explained by it. James Joyce wrote that he hoped Dublin, if destroyed, could be reconstructed brick by brick from his descriptions in Ulysses. But I don't think that's why he wrote the book and I don't think that's why Howard loves that tape so much. Sometimes art justifies who we are by explaining to the world how we lived and why we did the things we did, even when those things pained us, which is something that D.J. Qualls touches on in another monologue:

The thing is, and I believe this man, rap is coming back home to the south. This is where it all began: Heavy percussion, repetitive hooks, sexually suggestive lyics… It’s all blues, brother. “Back Door Man” to “Back Dat Ass Up,” it’s all about pain and pussy and making’ music man. With simple tools. By any means necessary. You’ve got to get what you’ve got to say out. Because you’ve got to. Every man, you know what I’m sayin’?... Has the right, the goddamn right, to contribute a verse.

He's tying Howard's "It's Hard Out There For Pimp" lament to the same tradition as Furry Lewis. The song just keeps changing shape and anyone who feels that Memphis' contributions belong in the past just isn't looking hard enough.

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