There’s something about Tony-award winning musicals that generally makes them all the rage, even when the importance of such an award depends greatly on the year it belongs to, with some years having amazing shows and others being lackluster. Memphis, the 2010 winner to best musical just got released in home video form and from what I saw; I can only say 2010 must’ve been a good, yet not great year in Broadway for musicals: Though a good play, Memphis feels at times formulaic and repetitive.
Memphis’ premise is a simple one: It attempts to tell us the story (loosely based on a real one) of the birth of rock ‘n roll by showing us the life of Huey Calhoun, a visionary of sorts who does all he can to make “race music” popular among white audiences and in the way falls in love with the African American singer he first sets off to make popular. During a little over two hours, the play shows us the rise to fame and fall from grace of the protagonist while telling its own tale about diversity and how things used to be pretty hard for colored people.
However, though the plot seems decent enough at first glance, it isn’t: It starts off pretty interesting but after the first hour it starts slogging and becomes uninteresting; the latter half of the show being a horribly long descent into what the viewership can easily predict and an endless repetition of the same situation where Huey and Felicia argue over whether to go up north or not – The same scene is repeated three or four times in different settings, with it making up the bulk of the second half of the show.
It also doesn’t help it that the base subject of the play (diversity) was already touched by Hairspray back in 2002, eventually winning the Tony for Best Musical in 2003. Though at times Memphis seems to present itself as a more mature version of Hairspray, it sadly lacks its charming characters (Huey can be charming at times but his demeanor gets boring after a while and, let’s face it, he can’t hold a candle to Tracy Turnblad). It is also sad that, though juvenile, Hairpray’s storyline held up much better than Memphis’ does and even musically the latter lacks the variety the former has – For most of its length, Memphis’ songs sound like rehashes of each other, with the first few songs being amazing yet its soundtrack getting boring after a while because of the repetitiveness of the styles of the songs.
However, that’s not to say Memphis is a failure – It entertained me well enough and I’d be lying if I said I won’t watch it again (The award for the Musical I Don’t Think I’ll Ever Watch Again goes to the horrible film version of Dreamgirls, which had the super-amazing Jennifer Hudson in it, yet even her star prowess failed to save a film that got so terribly mauled by Beyonce’s lack of acting talent or likeable screen presence). It just happens to be that, though entertaining enough, I can think of many other musicals from Broadway that are more entertaining than this one and its Tony Awards nominations simply tell me that 2010 wasn’t such a good year after all. Nevertheless, credit must be given where it’s due and Memphis does several things quite well – First, the stage it uses is amazingly done and designed along with the technical aspects of it (lightning, on-stage gadgets) are nothing short of amazing. Second, Memphis spots a very talented cast of actors and dancers that help bring the musical to life in a unique way. Also, the performances aren’t at all bad, some of them actually shine – It’s just the repetitiveness that drags them down. Technically speaking, Memphis is a pretty big achievement that’s dragged down by a story that’s not all that fulfilling and a choice of music that’s terrific at first but gets boring a little too fast.
Memphis is presented on full 1080p but, sadly the quality of the video sits somewhere between that and 720p. While looking decidedly better than a TV broadcast, it can’t hold a candle to other full 1080p releases – RENT! Filmed Live on Broadway, for example, looks much better and has many better shots than Memphis does, though many of its camera shots were clearly done without a live audience in staged scenes.
Putting the video quality behind, however, Memphis has quite an edge: Its visuals are colorful and engaging at all times and the recording/editing process was made to give the clearest possible idea of what being in the audience is like, except for the TV scenes that actually bring down the polish of the set. It sacrifices interaction for realism without going to extremes – You won’t see pans like the ones found in RENT!, where several scenes are found that would’ve been impossible to film as presented in front of a live audience (Or during a live show), while the camerawork is also better than that of, let’s say, the Sweeney Todd live DVD that has mainly a static camera. The way the video is presented could be, I guess, compared with that of the CATS DVD (Though the later wasn’t filmed in front of a live audience or in a real stage at all) – It shows you the stage from different angles without the cameras ever getting inside of it.
The sound fares just as well as the video does – It is terrific for the most part and its uncompressed 5.1 surround mix really brings down the house by putting you in the middle of the audience. However, just like the video, it isn’t without its issues: It is a common issue on Broadway that actors don’t sing clearly enough and it can become a chore to understand what the songs say and, sadly, that’s an issue in Memphis. Though vocally talented, most of the cast can’t seem to be able to sing in a clear way, so understanding the full lyrics to most songs without having a booklet at hand is near impossible, something that’s only made worse by the blatant omission of subtitles or closed captioning of any kind for the release, meaning many viewers will either have to look up the lyrics to the songs online or go through the presentation risking missing something important said with a song due to the less than stellar pronunciation by the cast and the reluctance of the producers to add subtitles.
All in all, all its flaws considered, Memphis is a pretty strong package that fails to deliver due to the weakness of the source material (That being the musical itself). As a musical play it is a pretty good one, yet it can’t really be compared with much more imposing plays like Hairspray, Wicked or – God forbid – The Phantom of the Opera. Nevertheless, you could do much worse on Broadway and the overall experience is a solid one that should keep musical fans entertained for a while.
Final review rating: 3.5/5
Availability: This release is currently available on physical form from Amazon.com