Review: 'Memphis' on the big screen

April 28, 2011
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"It's not like being there live," some purists say about recent efforts to offer live- or taped-from-the-stage productions in movie houses.

They are right, of course. But they are also missing a key point. We can't always be at a live show the same way we can't always be at a live sporting event. And seeing an opera or a musical or a play in a movie theater isn't necessarily the next best thing to being there--it's a different way of being there.

Case in point: "Memphis," the Broadway musical available for a few days in high definition at movie theaters around the country. What's unusual here is that the Tony-winning Best Musical is still running in New York. Producers seem willing to risk that the show's brief on-screen availability won't cut into its Broadway box office--and might even enhance its appeal when the touring company hits a city near you (Not a factor here, since it's not on next year's Broadway in Indianapolis lineup).

Not having seen the Broadway production, I can't tell you what works on screen that didn't work on stage (or vice versa). I can say, though, that the show comes across fine at the multiplex, the music is solid but without a breakout number (Think "Dreamgirls" without "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going"), and the supporting cast is fine. Telling the tale of a white Memphis deejay's efforts to bring rhythm and blues to the center of the radio dial, "Memphis" doesn't feel like anything new or different--until you consider how few Broadway musicals these days that aren't based on a movie and/or contain pre-existing songs.

What "Memphis" does have is the guts to put a very specific character rather than a bland hero at the center of the action. How you take Chad Kimball's eccentric performance will determine in large part how you feel about the production if not the play. "He certainly makes bold choices," said a patron at the screening I attended. And she's right--and those bold choices might be easier to take from the balcony rather than in close up.

Can we believe that the stunning Montego Glover falls for this guy? I didn't. But that doesn't keep me from recommending a trip to "Memphis," either on screen or in New York.

Your thoughts?

  • Loved it!
    I totally enjoyed the performance of Memphis
    ..... I certainly hope that they do more musicals in this venue.
  • more Broadway on the big screen, please!
    I won tickets to last night's performance in the IBJ's contest, and I am SO thankful and happy I did! I agree with all of Mr. Harry's comments above, especially about Mr. Kimball's performance choices. Even having to listen to his annoying accent/drawl/whatever it was for all of 2.5 hours, I would do it again. I love Broadway, and short of getting there in person, Broadway on the big screen is a special treat! I hope this limited engagement does well enough to prompt other productions to film and distribute their shows, too. Yaaaaay for Memphis!
  • Wow! Take me to Broadway!
    I thought the show was great. I have never been to NYC or Broadway but if this is what they do there, then it is beyond what I ever imagined. The dancing and the singing and the story just gave me goosebumps. Gator and "The Prayer" along with "Everyone wants to jump back on a Saturday Night" were spectacular. Huey and his songs about Memphis were beyond words - just beautiful! I can't afford to go see this in person, so this was a great opportunity. I am going back on Sunday with my kids and neighbors. Anyone reading this should go and experience what Broadway is all about!
  • A limited success
    I saw a screening in Greensboro NC last night. I thought the show sounded great, though the mixing was odd. The orchestra is mostly behind the actors on stage and sounded in front of them in the theater, and the audience reactions seems to be coming from behind the screen. On the whole, the hi-def image was OK in the brightly lit scenes but the contrast and color were poor in the dimly lit ones (No offensive to B'way designer Howell Binkley, whose lighting was redone for this broadcast). If a DVD or Blu-Ray of this recording are ever released, I suspect it'll look fine on a home screen, but the theater screen is just too big for theater close-ups of the kind they chose. I am tempted to say they looked "stagey," but what else would you expect? No, it just make something that would appear fine from 20 feet or so away look grotesque, as Gulliver must have to the Lilliputians. The performances, especially of Chad Kimbell, also often came across as annoying overblown. I have to say I found his drawling, twangy performance and Johnny Ray-style singing grating and irritating - and the only role I'd recommend him for is Ernest T. Bass if they ever made musical of the old Andy Griffith Show. Montego Glover is a fine singer and actress but there was just no chemistry in her scenes with Kimball. They've been playing the parts for seven years now, all throught try-outs and the full B'way run, so maybe that freshness is gone. The show itself, as reviewers have pointed out, is grab bag - a catchy if synthetic score and an overly familiar book patched together from "Hairspray," "Dreamgirls" and a bit of "A Star Is Born." So, it was not a total success - or failure. I hope more shows are offered this way - especially some limited runs like the current "The Normal Heart" or "Jerusalem." Directors and performers need to find a way make stage performances look better on the big screen.
    • ernest t bass
      Thank you for getting the Ernest T. Bass resemblence. It was driving me crazy who he was acting like. I thought it was Robin Williams doing Slingblade. I loved the dancing and the singing and it's a wonderful opportunity for those who cannot get to New York. So I hope they do more and not have so many close ups. I don't want to see the cover for the lead's hair under the wig.
    • LOVED IT!!
      Saw it tonight, and wish they would film ALL the original casts of musicals for historical posterity and reference. Chad Kimball plays part savant, genius, and a little slow, character with a unique line delivery NEVER seen before. I cannot imagine ANYONE matching his portrayal organically. Fun score, cross between HAIRSPRAY and DREAMGIRLS..and justified to win the Best Musical Tony! Fun fun fun show on film. see it if you can!

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