For decades now, the Orpheum has conducted a "Classic Movie Series" each summer, screening Hollywood staples such as Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, and The Wizard of Oz. But this summer they're adding a new component to the series throughout the month of July — a "Memphis Film Fest" consisting of eight films, six shot in Memphis and two others with local connections. These latter are The Blind Side, shot in Atlanta but based on a true Memphis story, and The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich's 1971 adaptation of Larry McMurtry's novel, a black-and-white, small-town Texas film featuring the big-screen debut of Memphian Cybill Shepherd.
The series begins Friday, July 1st, with Hustle & Flow, which will be introduced by director Craig Brewer, and concludes on Friday, July 29th, with the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. Among the screenings is the recent wrestling documentary Memphis Heat (July 22nd), which had a very successful local theatrical run earlier this year.
Inspired by the Orpheum series, I made my own list of the essential made-in-Memphis movies — four of which will be part of the Orpheum's program — weighing the quality eligible films against how fully they reflect the city.
1. Mystery Train (1989)
The Set-Up: Jim Jarmusch's landmark work of made-in-Memphis cinema is a triptych of interconnected stories that depict the city through the eyes of three types of outsiders: tourist (Japanese teens on a pilgrimage to Sun and Graceland), stranded traveler (an Italian widow on a layover), and immigrant (the Clash's Joe Strummer as a downbeat Brit).
The Movie: Jarmusch is one of the signature American directors of the past 30 years and with its deadpan comedy, compelling structure, colorful supporting performances (Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Steve Buscemi), strong sense of place, and a connoisseur's soundtrack that insists on Memphis culture beyond Elvis, Mystery Train is arguably his most pleasurable film.
The Memphis: Shot mostly at and around the intersection of South Main and what was then Calhoun, Mystery Train gave the corner its cachet, launching what has become the city's most filmed location.
On the surface, Mystery Train might not appear to be much of an advertisement for the city. Two brief airport scenes and the Sun Studio tour are the only moments in which Memphis doesn't appear seedy, blighted, or overgrown. But the film was an excavation of a then somewhat forgotten Memphis. Rufus Thomas is hanging around the train station. Three characters ride by the remains of the Stax building on McLemore, a hand-scrawled "Stax" across the facade a barren rebuke to the city. A depopulated daytime stroll past A. Schwab's is the only Beale appearance. The attitude toward Elvis is deliciously conflicted, but the film identifies his greatness via his eerie, beautiful take on "Blue Moon."
No other movie has so vividly captured Memphis as physical place and cultural idea.
2. Hustle & Flow (2005)
The Set-Up: Craig Brewer's independently produced pimp parable — which follows subsistence-level Memphis hustler/wannabe rapper Djay (Terrence Howard) through an early mid-life crisis — won the audience award at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and was sold to Paramount for a then-record $9 million, launching Brewer onto a major-league movie-making career.
The Movie: Brewer confirmed his talent for working with actors in leading Howard to a Best Actor Oscar nomination and demonstrated his talent for crafting a scene with a series of creation-myth recording-session sequences that swept audiences up.
But, in a larger sense, what was best and freshest about Hustle & Flow — and what some of its critics struggled with at the time — was how it reconciled seemingly opposed film worlds: gritty regional indie, Hollywood crowd-pleaser, "urban" B-movie. It was an art film with commercial instincts and a commercial movie with art-film texture. Appropriate, given that "commerce and art" is another way to say "hustle and flow."
The Memphis: Three 6 Mafia won an Oscar for "It's Hard Out Here for Pimp," but Hustle & Flow's connection to the Memphis rap scene ran deeper than that. Here was a multi-million-dollar, Hollywood-distributed film where Al Kapone's "Get Crunk, Get Buck" serves as the soundtrack to a chaotic scene at South Memphis' Crystal Palace skating rink and Nasty Nardo's "Let's Get a Room" blares at the King of Clubs shake joint. And the Memphis music riches extend to Scott Bomar's provocative soul score and cameos including Three 6's Juicy J and DJ Paul, Isaac Hayes, and Saliva's Josey Scott.
Also on board: So many of Brewer's recurring local players, including Lindsey Roberts bringing back her Harper character from The Poor and Hungry, John Still as a lecherous music-store owner, Jeff Pope as a prospective john, and the indispensable Claude Phillips as a tweaker Casio salesman.
3. The Firm (1993)
The Set-Up: A sprawling adaptation of John Grisham's novel, about a working-class Harvard Law ace (Tom Cruise) who gets hired by a small Memphis firm with big secrets.
The Movie: With Cruise heading an overflowing cast that includes Gene Hackman, Hal Holbrook, Holly Hunter, David Strathairn, and Wilford Brimley and with behind-the-
scenes talent such as director Sydney Pollack, producer Scott Rudin, and co-screenwriter Robert Towne, The Firm was — and arguably remains — the most prestigious film production the city's seen.
The Memphis: The Firm depicts a very different side of Memphis from Mystery Train or Hustle & Flow but perhaps a no less legitimate one — elegant downtown law firms, comfortable East Memphis homes, and Peabody rooftop parties.
Memorable bits include Cruise joining a flipper on Beale Street, visiting the Mud Island River Museum, taking his new convertible on a ride down Riverside Drive, and getting approached by cops at Blues City Café. Other settings include Southland Park, Front St. Deli, and Frayser Drug. Best of all: the Hitchcockian use of the Mud Island monorail for a cat-and-mouse scene.
4. Forty Shades of Blue (2005)
The Set-Up: Memphis-bred filmmaker Ira Sachs returned home for his second feature (following 1996's The Delta, also shot in Memphis), an emotional but muted Oedipal triangle set amid the Memphis music scene, with Rip Torn as a larger-than-life Sam Phillips-esque record producer and Russian actress Dina Korzun as his immigrant wife. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the same Sundance Film Festival where Hustle & Flow won the audience award.
The Movie: Forty Shades of Blue is like a toned-down version of a John Cassavetes film from the '70s. There's domestic turmoil, infidelity, quiet desperation — but rather than erupting into operatic histrionics, the longing and unhappiness of Sachs' characters remain mostly interior, seeping out in brief spasms of emotion and small cinematic grace notes. Sachs' film was perhaps too understated and too lacking in star power — detractors would say too boring — to make a dent at the box office.
The Memphis: Though Forty Shades of Blue is less a celebration of the city than civic boosters might want, it depicts Memphis with more truthfulness, albeit of the offhand variety, than even Mystery Train or Hustle & Flow. Combining an insider's knowledge with an outsider's detachment, Sachs knows where an aging, wealthy, Memphis-to-the-bone character like Torn's would live and where he would go, and the director turns the lens on the city's sometimes ossified music culture with affection but also honesty. 5. Hallelujah! (1929)
The Set-Up: Silent master King Vidor's musical melodrama — only the second Hollywood film to feature an all-black cast — concerns a sharecropper tempted and taken advantage of by a city dance-hall girl. The film was considered socially progressive in its day, though the stereotypes are pretty thick. It was the first major film production in Memphis and the last for several decades.
The Movie: Part of the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress, Hallelujah! is most notable historically as a groundbreaking sound film, its use of post-synchronized sound freeing the "talkies" from their studio-bound constraints and enabling ambitious location shooting.
The Memphis: Shot around Memphis on both the Tennessee and Arkansas sides of the Mississippi River, Hallelujah! provides an almost documentary depiction of cotton production of the time, from picking to processing to bales loaded onto steamboats. There's a striking mass baptism scene filmed at the Wolf River. And the climactic chase scene across an Arkansas swamp might be the most memorable and impressive scene in any Memphis film.
6. The Poor and Hungry (2000)
The Set-Up: Craig Brewer's career-starting, homemade feature, shot for $20,000 with a two-man crew, is a black-and-white Beauty & the Beast variation — a burly car thief falls in love with one of his victims, a delicate cello player — filtered through honeysuckle and kudzu.
The Movie: Memorable writing. (Opening line: "Most of the time, the parts are worth more than the whole thing.") The ability to coax strong performances. (Lindsey Roberts' indelible Harper.) A feel for colorful business. (The cup game; the prayer over the Cadillac.) A lived-in vision of Memphis that bypasses the obvious. (Title-granting location: the P&H Café.) This was Brewer's calling card, and if it's raw in spots, it's easy to see why it opened doors.
The Memphis: The aforementioned P&H — and proprietor Wanda Wilson — are at the core of the film, but everything here — every actor, location, piece of music, etc. — is 100 percent Memphis.
7. The Rainmaker (1997)
The Set-Up: Up-and-coming actor Matt Damon is underdog lawyer Rudy Baylor, a recent "Memphis State" law school grad suing an insurance company for declining a leukemia patient's bone-marrow-transplant request in Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of the John Grisham novel.
The Movie: The most substantial director to helm a Grisham adaptation (Coppola also did the script) and, perhaps as a result, the best — both the funniest, most serious, and most rousing — of the many films based on Grisham novels. The David vs. Goliath courtroom drama is simplistic but effective — with a classical ease to the direction, a bevy of colorful performances (including ambulance chaser Danny DeVito, corporate lawyer Jon Voight, and, in her final film role, Hollywood veteran Teresa Wright), and an ahead of its time core of anger directed at the private health-care insurance industry.
The Memphis: "Memphis State" was anachronistic by this time and Mary Kay Place's threat to throw a bottle across "Union Street" just wrong, but The Rainmaker presents a less glossy take on mainstream Memphis than The Firm — the Pinch instead of Union and Front, Midtown instead of East Memphis. Supporting turns include Memphians Red West and Wayne Emmons. Name locations include Danny's strip club (which Mickey Rourke's corrupt yet somehow righteous lawyer owns) and the Las Savell jewelry store (where Claire Danes' love interest works).
8. Walk the Line (2005)
The Set-Up: A prestige project that tracks the early Memphis years of Johnny Cash but focuses on the decade-long courtship between Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) and June Carter (Reese Witherspoon, who won a Best Actress Oscar).
The Movie: Walk the Line is not the illuminating portrait of Cash the artist for which fans might have hoped. Cash's depths and cultural complications elude both Walk the Line and Phoenix, who gives perhaps a too mannered performance. But where Walk the Line succeeds is as a terrific musical love story, telling much of its story — narratively and emotionally — through natural concert performances.
The Memphis: Walk the Line does a terrific job using present-day Memphis to evoke the Memphis of the '50s, with plenty of location shooting around the South Main district and in some residential neighborhoods.The film also does a fine job evoking the regional touring circuit of the mid-'50s. And in a strong Sun audition scene, an at first unlikely-seeming Dallas Roberts rises to the occasion playing the young Sam Phillips, surprising with his intense, perceptive, business-like characterization and going far above the standard set by Trey Wilson in the faltering Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire.
Memphis native Ginnifer Goodwin plays a key role as Cash's first wife, Vivian. Among the many small roles by local actors and musicians are Clare Grant as a "lissome girl" at an early concert and Amy LaVere as Wanda Jackson.
9. My Blueberry Nights (2007)
The Set-Up: The first American and English-language film from Hong Kong master Wong Kar-Wai, creator of Chung-king Express and In the Mood for Love, is the director's take on Americana. The film stars singer Norah Jones in her acting debut and takes place over the course of a year in three distinctly American locations: Manhattan, Memphis, and Las Vegas.
The Movie: This road movie of sorts is an outsider's vision of America as a neon-lit land of casinos, diners, and dime bars, where everyone drives a cool convertible and "Try a Little Tenderness" is always playing on the jukebox.
The Memphis segment, where Jones waits tables at the Arcade by day and tends bar at Earnestine & Hazel's by night, becoming a witness to a Tennessee Williams-esque scenario involving an alcoholic cop (David Strathairn) and his estranged wife (Rachel Weisz), is the strongest portion of the film. But the same rootless, wandering melancholy that's so captivating in Wong's Hong Kong films feels more contrived here. A trifle by comparison but a lovely, romantic, visually stirring trifle.
The Memphis: From Elvis ghost stories in Mystery Train to a bizarrely boisterous celebration of its perfectly respectable chili in Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown and in almost every Memphis movie in between, the Arcade Restaurant along with its South Main intersection has become a movie star. But it's never looked as good as it does through Wong's lens. My Blueberry Nights is the location's apotheosis — from the fish-eye entrance by the Arcade facade to a moody shot of clouds reflected in the restaurant's windows to the dark-red glow inside Earnestine & Hazel's to the wet grit of the street peeking over the bar's neon sign.
10. Superstarlet A.D. (2000)
The Set-Up: Local "exploitation" filmmaker John Michael McCarthy's third feature. The plot? Something about "beauty cults" battling it out in pursuit of a grandmother's "ancestral stag film."
The Movie: The film is on this list as representative of McCarthy's subterranean oeuvre, which also includes the formative Teenage Tupelo, the garage-rock and comic-books love letter The Sore Losers, and the more recent, more conventional noir Cigarette Girl. The mixed-up autobiography of Teenage Tupelo is a personal fave, but the striking black-and-white Superstarlet A.D. is McCarthy's most visually memorable film. What it lacks in narrative coherence it more than makes up for in style and conceptual verve — a girls-with-guns spectacular that comes across as something like Russ Meyer (Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!) gone glam-rock. Tagline: "Apocalypse Meow."
The Memphis: McCarthy's moves are notable for their defamiliarizing use of Memphis locations, and he puts urban decay to his advantage for this post-apocalyptic piece set in "Femphis." Among the local cast still notable today: Alicja Trout and Jodi — wife of Craig — Brewer.