It’s early 1950s Memphis, and Huey Calhoun (Chad Kimball) is the only white guy hanging out at an all black rhythm and blues club in the seedy side of town. He’s there because he loves their music, and he says he has a dream to share the music with everyone, black or white. Club owner Delray (J. Bernard Calloway) doesn’t like the sound of this, and he really doesn’t like Huey’s flirtations with his sister and star singer Felicia (Montego Glover). Thanks to a few outrageous escapades, Huey becomes a popular D.J., charming teen listeners with his off-the-cuff chatter and winning them over with real rhythm and blues. The love of the music collides with racial tension brewing throughout the city. Huey and Felicia begin a romance as well, complicating their lives even more.
First things first: What, exactly, is on this disc? It’s not a feature film adaptation of the hit Broadway show Memphis. Instead, it takes the stage show and gives it the “concert film” treatment. The first few shots are of the outside of the theater, audience members being shown to their places, and the even the cameras being set up in the aisles and the balcony. This says to viewers, “You’re watching this as if you’re actually in the seats.” We hear the audience laugh and applaud throughout. Any illusion of this actually taking place in Memphis is sacrificed in favor of the illusion that you’re in New York at a Broadway show. The performance was captured for a special showing in select cinemas throughout the country in March 2011, and it’s now on Blu-ray. It makes sense to do this. Everyone in the world now has a tiny video camera on them all times, so someone in the audience will eventually record the show, if not already. If it’s going to happen anyway, would you want to watch Memphis on some blurry, shaky, and overall crappy YouTube video, or would you rather enjoy it in 1080p with DTS sound?
Getting to the show itself, it’s great fun. The songs have that early ’50s vibe, but with a bigger, broader scope. No one song is the big showstopper, as they are all an integral part of these characters and their world. Allegedly, many people have seen the show believing that the songs were 1950s originals, only to be shocked to learn all the music was composed specifically for this show.
Full disclosure time: I saw Memphis on Broadway in September 2011, and was blown away by how much fun of a character Huey was. Huey on stage was a whirlwind of energy, throwing off one-liners and screwball antics at a record pace. Watching this Blu-ray and seeing the same actor as Huey again, it appeared to be a more subdued performance. The fault is no doubt my fuzzy memories and not this performance. Huey is still a great character, full of passion for what he believes in, and a hilarious devil-may-care attitude for anything else. Although good natured, he doesn’t think before acting or speaking, and this makes him wild and unpredictable—an excellent comedic hero to rally behind. Actor Chad Kimball gives Huey an cadence to his voice, stretching out the ends of sentences, often ending them with a non-word syllable:
“He talks like thiiiis, hmmm?”
Pretty much every one of Huey’s lines is spoken this way. I imagine some viewers will find him annoying rather than endearing. I’ll make a case in favor of Huey’s manner of speech because for one, the actor remains committed to it throughout the entire show, and two, Huey’s speaking illustrates his love of music. Just by speaking, he’s attempting to create music—trying to force notes and rhythm out of ordinary spoken words. He loves music and is so determined to share it with others.
As Felicia, Montego Glover must walk a fine line throughout the show. She loves Huey and she loves to sing, and yet she knows there is a price to be paid for her actions. She’s the serious one, balancing Huey’s goofiness, but you believe her inner conflict, as she wants to be able to love and aspire to be something more, while also well aware of the harsh realities of the world around her. J. Bernard Calloway is a standout as Felicia’s tough-guy brother. Derrick Baskin and James Monroe Iglehart bring a nice “everyman” quality to their roles and musicians and friends who get caught up in Huey and Felicia’s rise to fame, as does Cass Morgan as Huey’s mother, who also learns to change along with the times.
Memphis is a feel-good musical, loaded with upbeat songs, comedy high jinks, and a message about how change for the better is possible, both at a societal level and a personal level. Still, it has no shortage of serious, sad, or even violent moments, showing that there’s still a long way to go. The racial issues that fuel the plot are front and center, and sensitive viewers should know that the “n-word” is used. Mostly, though, racial tensions are not shown for shock value, but to depict the changing of the times, even when dealt with in a straightforward, in-your-face manner.
Recorded with a high-def presentation in mind, it’s no surprise that the video quality is stellar. Textures, flesh tones, lighting and a ton of small details all shine brightly on screen, as if you’re right there on stage. This being a musical, sound is critical, and the disc excels here as well. Notice how the orchestra’s horn section comes mostly from the rear speakers while the rest of the instruments and voices come from the front. This is not distracting at all, but is quite the opposite in that it adds to the disc’s “wow” factor. For further evidence, the bonus featurette offers a comparison between the original untreated audio versus the final product, and the results are amazing.
That featurette is the highlight of the bonus features, which discuss the creation of the show, the casting, and the reasoning behind capturing it for home video. See it live and seeing it on disc are both valid experiences, the creators say. From there we get short messages from cast members, and a trailer.
There are no subtitles, and that is a huge disappointment. I couldn’t fully enjoy the quick-paced lyrics as much as I would have liked. Worse, though, without subtitles, I had to turn to the internet to find the correct spelling of “hockadoo.”
Memphis comes packaged with a “Broadway Worldwide” logo/graphic thingie at the start. Does this mean we’ll get other Broadway shows on home video in this same style? If that’s the case, I hope future shows will receive the same care and effort that has gone into this one. Give it a shot.