Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Working in Memphis: A Documentary (Part 2)

Vince Johnson of the Plantation AllStars
So, I promised to update you readers occasionally on the progress of the documentary film that my student Sophie Osella and I are shooting this summer about working Memphis musicians... but, to be honest, I've barely had a free moment to do so.  As I said in the previous post about this project, our tight schedule and our subject matter has made for very long days and very late nights of filming.  For the last couple of weeks anyway, I've been working pretty much 24/7, dividing my time between the regular writing/research that my "day" job requires and the work that this film requires.  For the record, I've been doing my "regular" (Philosophy) work from about 7am until roughly 3pm-ish every day.  The back-end of my regular workday depends mostly on when our filming schedule starts for any given day, which is rarely before 2pm, but I've had to be really self-disciplined about when my "regular" workday starts.  The really difficult part about that self-disciplined start-time has been that our filming schedule quite often goes well past midnight, sometimes as late as 4am, so I trust you can imagine how cloudy some of those 7am start-times feel for a philosopher who needs to be thinking very clearly.  Anyway, Sophie and I are very quickly running-up on the time when we need to stop filming and lock ourselves in the editing room, which means that the last ten days (since my last update) have been insanely busy as we try to get every last bit of footage that we need. The good news is that, apart from some mostly-expected and arguably-unavoidable audio issues, almost everything we have is looking and sounding really amazing.  For the last week, we've spent most of our time in interviews, which has been much easier to manage (technically) than filming live performances and, in a pleasantly surprising way, has been every bit as enjoyable. 

Brad Birkedahl and The Burnin' Love Band
This week of filming has given us some of our best-- and worst-- documentary film-making experiences so far.  As everyone with any sense prefers, I'll give you the bad news first.  Two less-than-ideal things that I've been expecting and basically waiting to happen, but hadn't happened yet, finally came to pass this week: (1) Sophie and I got kicked out of a place where we were trying to shoot footage, and (2) we had our first subject pull out of the film.  I won't name the place or the person involved the above snafus because we're still operating for the most part on people's generosity and good graces, but I will say that neither of these "bad" experiences were all that devastating for our project.  We've had extremely good luck so far (knock on wood!) being able to come and go pretty much as we please, which is no small accomplishment considering our filming environment.  As I said before, we're operating on precisely ZERO budget-- we've paid all of the expenses out of our own pockets so far, including big expenses (like lens/equipment rentals) and all the "extraneous" small expenses that add up to be, in aggregate, very large expenses (mostly band, doormen and bartender tips), and that one could never include on a actual expense report-- so paying the musicians and performers in our documentary has been, from the get-go, completely impossible.  We've done an extremely good job, in my opinion, winning the trust, confidence and support of the people on Beale Street so far, and it helps that everyone who has participated has done so for the same reason that we're doing this film, that is, for the love of Memphis music.  I'd say at this point that most of the bartenders, servers and doormen on Beale Street know us, ALL of the performers/artists on Beale Street know us and, with maybe two exceptions, we're on solidly good terms with everyone.  Having been down there practically24/7 for over a month, we get far more solicitations than rejections at this point.  So, all things considered, I think we've had a fairly easy go of it, our two negative experiences this week notwithstanding.

Patrick Dodd
Now, to be honest, a lot of our "easy go of it" has to do with the fact that I knew almost everyone down on Beale Street when we started and, as these things are bound to happen, once we got the greenlight from a few of the performers, the word of our project spread and the rest of them came on board quickly.  But even with a lot of already-established "connections," there's still a lot of connecting to do for a project like this. We've been really fortunate that we're making a film in a town and on a street that practically overflows with not only incredible music, but an incredible amount of love, community and good will.  To wit, the interviews we got on film in the last couple of weeks have been both eye-opening and inspiring.  Patrick Dodd, Vince Johnson, Steve Newman, Brad Birkedahl, Joyce Henderson and her sister Natalie James have all been so honest, so forthcoming and sometimes so hilarious that I really can't wait for the rest of you to see them.  As I said in the previous post about this project, my one regret is that we don't have everything on film.  So many of our off-camera conversations have been the best.  I've talked a lot about this off-camera, but one of the things about Beale Street-- where most of the hardworking Memphis musicians work and keep the "legend" of Memphis music alive-- is that most Memphians don't go to Beale Street.  Every single day that we work on this project I realize again what a damn shame that is.  Our very best and most talented Memphis musical artists are keeping this city (and very large part of this city's economy) alive by grinding it out day and night on Beale Street. 

MEMPHIANS:  Seriously, as one of you, let me just say that you NEED to go downtown and check out what we have more often.  Beale Street is NOT just a "tourist trap."  It's an absolutely perfect concentration of everything that Memphis music is and has ever been. Yes, it's there to make the city money and to attract tourists, but everything that is down there is our home-grown stuff.   And if you haven't availed yourself of the opportunity to drink the local musical-brew recently, you are seriously missing out.

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