The five best films made in Memphis.
1 Mystery Train (1989)
Jim Jarmusch’s landmark work of made-in-Memphis cinema is a triptych of interconnected stories that depict the city through the eyes of outsiders. With its deadpan comedy, compelling structure, colorful supporting performances, strong sense of place, and a connoisseur’s soundtrack that insists on Memphis culture beyond Elvis, Mystery Train is arguably Jarmusch’s most pleasurable film. 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. No other movie has so vividly captured the city as physical place and cultural idea.
2 Hustle & Flow (2005)
Craig Brewer’s independently produced pimp parable — which follows subsistence-level Memphis hustler/wannabe rapper Djay (Terrence Howard) through an early mid-life crisis — launched Brewer onto a major-league movie-making career. 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.”
3 The Firm (1993)
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. With Cruise heading an overflowing cast and with behind-the-scenes talent, The Firm was — and arguably remains — the most prestigious film production the city’s seen. The film 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. Best of all: the Hitchcockian use of the Mud Island monorail for a cat-and-mouse scene.
4 Forty Shades of Blue (2005)
Memphis-bred filmmaker Ira Sachs’ second feature is 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. 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. 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)
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. 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. Shot around Memphis on 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. And the climactic chase scene across an Arkansas swamp might be the most memorable and impressive scene in any Memphis film
Chris Herrington is the Film Editor of the Memphis Flyer, where a version of this story first appeared.