The films Hustle and Flow and Forty Shades of Blue scored big with audiences, distributors, and award-givers at the recent Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, simultaneously changing Memphis music history.
Blue hit the equivalent of a triple, winning the American Dramatic Film Grand Jury Prize and receiving an international distribution deal to be announced this week. Hustle walloped a grand slam, securing one of the largest film sales prices ever for Sundance and then later in the week winning the coveted -- and highly marketable -- American Film Dramatic Audience Award, as well as the Excellence Award in Dramatic Cinematography.
It would be impossible to discuss or view either of these films -- both set in Memphis and featuring local music plots --without reference to Memphis music itself. The score for Hustle and Flow was created by Scott Bomar, who has been a Memphis music hustler for over fifteen years beginning his career with the Green Day-influenced pop-punk band Pezz, then forming instro-surf r&b kings Impala, and more recently putting together old-school soul giants the Bo-Keys.
Contacted in Hollywood, where he is currently securing an agent and helping to insure that the Memphis music remains on the soundtrack releases, Bomar said this: About three years ago Craig (Brewer) gave me the script and I thought it was amazing. I couldnt believe someone had captured what it was like to make music and to make music with your friends. That was around the time [Brewers first film] Poor & Hungry was making noise as a digital feature in the Hollywood Film Festival. [Hustle and Flow producer] Stephanie [Allain] came in town to a birthday party at Craigs, and Craig said, You should bring some music over for Stephanie as she is going to be the producer of Hustle & Flow. Craig had put a look book together for the movies -- photographs and things like that with Bernie Imes and [Bill] Eggleston photos, and it included music like I had worked on with Luke (Sexton) from Tunnel Clones.
According to Bomar, Allain offered to sell her house to pay for the film to be shot on digital video. Producer John Singleton stepped in and tried to sell the film to a studio, and nobody bit. Eventually Singleton did finance the shooting of the movie on film. Bomar got the job as music director and hired most of the Bo-Keys to score the film. Former Stax players Willie Hall, Skip Pitts, Ben Cauley, and Marvell Thomas, along with Mark Franklin, Hector Diaz, Derrick Williams, and Bomar himself, played while the film was shown on a screen in Ardent Studios.
Bomar: We set the rhythm section up in the studio and had a screen showing the film. And we had charts and we were playing to a click track. We watched the film as we played. Most of it was in one take. It took us a full day to get the rhythm section down. The next day we did the horns. Then percussion overdubs. We recorded the full thing in 2 days. The one really cool thing that happened was that Isaac Hayes came by. Before he left, he told us, Youve been blessed by Moses. That was pretty cool!
The soundtrack and film also feature a potpourri of Southern and Memphis musicians: Nashville rapper Haystack plays a DJ; Isaac Hayes, Juicy J of Triple 6 Mafia and Al Kapone play Ludacris right hand men; Josey Scott of Saliva does duty as a convenience store operator; DJ Qualls plays a rapper named after Shelby Bryant of the Clears, and, of course, Ludacris plays a rapper. On the soundtrack are three or four songs by Memphis musicians Al Kapone and Triple 6 Mafia, as well as ones by Jason Freeman, Willie Halls son Gangsta Pat, Calvin Newborn, Mark Lemhouse, and Al Green. Says Bomar: Its real cool that Al Kapone is involved cause hes the first rapper in Memphis Id heard of. Its cool that Willie Hall is on the soundtrack and so is his son.
After the songs were recorded in Memphis, Bomar headed West for the mixes. We mixed it out at Sonora studio in California where Nancy Sinatras new record was cut. Its the Los Angeles Easley place--lots of vintage equipment and a really cool guy who runs the place. Then the dialog was mixed in at Dane Tracks, where Dog Town & Z Boys and Riding Giants were mixed.
I t was big news last December when two Memphis films were chosen to play at Sundance. Now that seems like an eternity ago. Bomar reflects, The night the movie premiered, it was pretty magical. So many lives changed that night. No matter if you write a song or paint a picture, you never know how people are going to react to it. Seven hundred people gave it a standing ovation -- all filmmakers and people in the entertainment business. If you can get a reaction from them thats that intense, you have a really good film. Ill always remember the screening that night.
Bomar was out on the sidewalk in Park City that night waiting to get a cab to go to a Snoop Dogg show when Brewer and his wife approached in a panic. Apparently a deal was going down at the Marriott Hotel, and they did not know the Marriots location Several hours later at 4:00 a.m., Brewer came back to the condo where the group was staying and brought the good news of the $9 million movie deal. Bomar: In that three hours, the world changed. If anyone deserves something like this, he [Brewer] does. He never stopped or wavered. By any means necessary: That was the way this movie was approached.
Bomar said that several film producers complimented the scenes in the film in which the rappers created their music. People were afraid to do the movie, and now people I talked to at Sundance told me what they were afraid about was the middle part of the movie--where the characters were making the music. Everyone was afraid that part wouldnt come off right, but thats what everyone likes about the movie. They get to see these characters make this music. Kids are really excited about because thats what they do.
There probably has not been a better-timed music product to come out of Memphis since É er, well, 1954. Rap and hip hop are the hottest commodities going in the music business, and MTV has been pimpin rides and hip hop videos almost exclusively for over a decade now. This movie should be an easy sell for MTV and Paramount Classics and could easily double or triple their guarantee in the first weekend of release, tentatively set for midsummer. (It is indeed ironic that Paramount, who owned Stax Records briefly from 1968-1972, has come back to pick up a Memphis movie scored by former Stax musicians). MTV has already shown Hustle and Flow star Ludacris gallivanting around Sundance; so there should be no shortage of publicity. A Paramount vice-president of publicity said, Were going to go after this movie in a really big way. We bought it because it was the best thing at the festival -- unique, entertaining, and every audience loved this movie.
Other industry stars at the festival who gave Brewers film the thumbs up include Melvin Van Peebles, producer rep John Pierson, and Steve Buscemi. According to Bomar: Peebles stood up at the question-and-answer session and said, Right on. Your movie is beautiful. Dont ever apologize cause youre white. He told Craig he thought it was a great movie. To me its a continuation of what he pioneered. The connection between Stax with the music and the way he made his movies. To him saying that is a good sign. Bomar ran into Buscemi at the airport and, once he found out Bomar worked on the film, told him, Good work on the score, which was a big deal to me. And Bomar says that Pierson, a powerhouse in the non-studio world of film, confided that he is behind the film, too.
The actual soundtrack release has not been decided upon yet. The sale of the film happened so quickly that minor details like who will release it and what songs will be on it are still unfolding. Ludacris has a deal to release some sort of soundtrack from the film, and there may be a couple of different releases involved with the music. Bomar is out in California right now trying to keep tabs on the Memphis music in the actual soundtrack release, as well as working to find an agent. Thats one of the beautiful things about the music from Hustle & Flow. The music in the movie was not determined by the boardroom of a studio but was done by the real guys.
Normally Ira Sachs success and his Sundance award with 40 Shades of Blue would be a big enough story, but this year is highly unusual for Memphis films -- with Hustle and Flow out-shouting the more subdued 40 Shades in hype, commercial potential, publicity, and on-screen energy.
Sachs, whose opus is a relationship film, set in Memphis, about an aging Memphis music producer from the 60s and his young Russian wife, has a more European approach to film-making. Slow, deliberate pacing is emphasized, and what is not said is as important as what is said on screen. This type of film is far more popular in the art-film circuit and in Europe. Sachs acknowledges as much by saying, I am curious to see how people respond to the film in a non-American environment. And the next stop for the film is the Berlin Film Festival, beginning this week, where an international-distribution deal for 40 Shades of Blue was expected to be announced.
Unlike the case with Hustle and Flow, Sachs deliberately tried not to use specific Memphis music or Memphis music hits. The soundtrack is filled with a lost treasure chest of soul classics, most of which were produced by a little known but much under-appreciated writer, Bert Berns, he says. We chose to use a musical canon that was not created in Memphis specifically, because we didnt want to get to close to the specific legends and create a non-reality. We didnt want it to be Sun, Stax, or Hi because those people--Sam Phillips, Willie Mitchell -- are defined by their particular sounds.
Sachs hired Memphis music producer David Less, the owner of Memphis International Records, to produce the original songs for the film. Less pitched various songs and artists to fulfill Sachs vision for the film. The Memphis songs that ended up in the film include a soul piece by Earl Thomas (who actually hails from East Tennessee); a string song and boogie-woogie number performed by Jim Dickinson, Sid Selvidge, Tommy Burroughs and Sam Shoup; Dark End of the Street with a vocal by J. Blackfoot of the Soul Children; a remake of A Little Big of Soap; and a son from the 60s performed by Elvis mafia member and sometime songwriter Red West. Working on-screen as well as functioning as the studio band for the Blackfoot song and A Little Bit of Soap are an ensemble made up of Booker T. drummer Steve Potts, Dave Smith, Michael Toles, Ronnie Williams, Scott Thompson, and Jim Spake.
Sachs probably mined the reservoirs of Memphis rich musicians more on screen then on the soundtrack. Memphis- affiliated musicians appearing in the film in addition to those listed above include Skip Pitts (also on the Hustle and Flow soundtrack) and Larry Lee. Both films obviously dig deep from the musicians involved in Memphis halcyon days of soul and r&b, especially the early 1970s. Sachs professes pride on one point: One of the great things about filming the movie in Memphis is that we were able to cast the movie with all these great Memphis faces. There was so much support from the Memphis music industry that it gave the film such visual authenticity and musical style. The high point was spending an afternoon at Jim Dickinsons house as he gave Rip Torn piano lessons.
A fortuitous thing happened while Sachs was driving around New York. As he says,The film was originally titled Laura. I heard Johnny Cashs version of 40 Shades of Green on the radio, and I thought that would be a great title, but it would be better as 40 Shades of Blue. Roseanne Cash was in Utah and asked if it was connected to her father, and I was very honored to say yes. The newer title is far more music-oriented and much easier to market.
Part of Less deal for producing the original music for the film included the right to release the soundtrack of the film on his Memphis International Records. This agreement would seem to make a perfect fit for both parties, since International has excellent distribution throughout Europe and at least half of their sales come from across the pond. With Sachs film likely to do better in Europe than the U.S., having a partner based in Memphis with a hand in each market should benefit the film as well as the soundtrack. Less is excited about the project but realizes, Ultimately the soundtrack will be codependent with the success of the movie.
What does all of this overnight success mean for the future of Memphis music and film? Aside from the tremendous amount of publicity these films have already created for Memphis (not all good publicity, unless you consider the acronymic Making Easy Money Pippin Hos in Style a good PR campaign for Memphis), expectations are high for future projects. With the backing of MTV on Hustle and Flow, the hype and publicity is already cranking. During Sundance week, members of the cast and crew of Hustle and Flow appeared in five different segments (two repeated) on the Sundance Network TV show hosted by Jay Mohr (Sachs made one appearance, which has had one repeat). MTV is already showing clips of Ludacris around Sundance. The resources and distribution of Paramount and MTV will insure a successful marketing of the film.
A few things are certain. Memphis will have more publicity. Craig Brewer intends to shoot here in Memphis again. Other record labels and films will be hearing more about Memphis music this year. Will that make Memphis the next Hollywood? Doubtful, but it certainly will raise the bar for future potential projects. Less, a thirty year music biz veteran says, Memphis has a creative community that really needs a chance. This opens doors and gives people some visibility. I think its really significant. I think that our best chance to develop a film industry is to develop our talent here. This will allow more people to get more proficient at film-making. I think film-making is similar to record making. I think people will have greater access to these budgets. I dont think Spielberg will want to make his movies here because of Sundance, but it should help the independents.
Bomar feels stronger that this will change things for Memphis, Two weeks ago people wouldnt take my calls. Craig has more movies to make in Tennessee. I have been asked to do the score for the next movie. I think that more music supervisors are going to come after Memphis music. I think the thing that so many of us in Memphis have been waiting on É these two movies are the thing weve been waiting to happen. There are so many bands that dont have distribution, and Memphis is an oasis musically. Everyone knows that Memphis is where the good music is, but they dont come and sign the bands or make films. Memphis is perceived by a lot of people to have had this great history in the past. But people will realize there is exciting stuff happening right now that is on par with anything coming from New York and L.A. Thats what Ira and Craig have proved -- that you can make movies in Memphis as good as New York or L.A. I think thats going to change.
Less agrees with that point. I think first off there is a great recognition for Memphis music worldwide, some of it historical. But I say that there is still a very vibrant and active music scene, creating music as relevant and significant as ever. Sometimes we spend so much time talking about the history here that we forget about the talent here now. Were lucky to have Craig and Ira here making movies tuned to the music here and the vibe here. There is an undercurrent throughout the film of the beat. The movie catches that. If you can catch the thing that makes Memphis unique and important on film, then you know you will have peoples attention and interest.
I may be the only person who believes this. I dont see any difference between the history of Memphis music and whats going on today. It is identical. I think there wouldnt be a Memphis rap beat without Booker T. & the MGs. There wouldnt be a Reigning Sound without Jim Dickinson. I see it as a continuum.
Lets hope it is.