Willis Earl Beal
Memphis, the film, not the place. But it is the place, a film about place, about a young man who goes to Memphis to make a record, but instead discovers that he needs to discover himself, what matters, what doesn’t. The story told is non-linear, almost non-narrative, and holds a loving gaze toward Memphis as a work of art–it’s music, it’s people, it’s churches, and it’s natural surroundings. The description given here is more concrete even than the film itself, which my photographer friend Tina said, “flowed like a moving photo book or series of photos – slow vignettes about a very specific place but with lots of detail left out in between. ”
I came to find out about the film, which I saw several weeks ago at the Cable Car Cinema in Providence, by my friend Nate Kelly. Nate had noticed that the film was directed by a man with the same name as a former roommate he and his then girlfriend, now wife, Cathy, (a super-close friend of mine) had lived with in Prague during the 1990’s. Turned out, their Tim Sutton, is the director of Memphis.
There was much to be enchanted about in Tim’s film, especially, it’s star, non-actor and real-life musician, Willis Earl Beal. Beal drew me in with his cool non-chalance, angelic singing voice, and dreamy, philosophical, paper-bag drinking, naturalist seeking-self. Though the film was about the musician’s journey, there was not much of the main character’s music in the film, as the director intended much of the story to be outside of the frame–to happen off-screen, for us the viewers to imagine. Sutton did not want to direct something that felt like a music biopic, and with his surreal, Memphis, he succeeded. The film, which used all local, non-actors, will be shown at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. You can check out the trailer and learn more about Memphis and future screenings of this unusual, artistic film at www.memphis-film.com.
After the movie, when I learned during the Director’s Talk with the audience, that Willis Earl Beal’s present life oddly enough now mirrors some of the film version’s protagonist’s, I had to look him up 0n-line to learn more about him. I wanted to now hear him sing.
I learned that Beal is from Chicago, is 32 years-old, and lived in New York for some time looking to break into the recording industry. He had some mild success, was signed to a record label, but ended up leaving his label–due to a combination of unpreparedness for the trajectory to stardom, frustration with the industry that wanted to label him as this generation’s Robert Johnson, or the next Ed Sheeran, as well as the lack of control over his artistry. Beal is now living in Olympia, Washington, writing and recording music in his home, on his terms.
I came across this interview video of Beal, produced by the Amsterdam based music platform FaceCulture. As soon as I started listening to Beal speak, I was blown away because it was right while I was in the middle of working on the Keith Thompson interview. In our interview I had had a conversation where I asked Keith to elaborate on what I thought I heard him say about certain segments of the black community being either “my people” or “not my people,” and, well, you’ll just have to watch and see what Beal has to say about his own experiences with the way black men acknowledge one another, and the-way he sees himself and others. I found Beal, and his views on race and person-hood mesmerizing. Take a look, and then a listen to Beal singing Evening’s Kiss below.
Willis Earl Beal Interview by FaceCulture (Part 1)
There are two more parts to this interview that you can click on the links here to view. In Part 2 Beal mentions Michael Jackson, and influences on his development as a singer.
Willis Earl Beal Interview – Part 2
Willis Earl Beal Interview – Part 3
Here is Beal singing, Evening’s Kiss