US Cities on Screen: Memphis & Nashville
In this month’s Cities on Screen feature we’re spotlighting two of Tennessee’s finest: Memphis and Nashville. Each has a staggering musical history: Memphis as the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll; Nashville as ‘Music City’, home of country music. On the big screen, you’d recognize Memphis as the backdrop to countless John Grisham adaptations in which lawyers with thick southern accents gesticulate towards glum-faced juries. Nashville you’d recognize as the backdrop to countless stories of brokenhearted country singers inching up the ladder of stardom. Sometimes these cities’ iconic backdrops stick out. Sometimes they don’t. Like The Matrix, which you’d only know was shot in Nashville if you were really paying attention. Anyway, without further ado, here are our favourite cinematic snapshots of the two cities.
When Jim Jarmusch shot his late-80s ode to the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll, he captured the fragile beauty of the city’s outer edges, its colourful characters living in the margins. The most iconic locations? Arcade Café, officially the city’s oldest café; and Sun Studio, where the Elvis-obsessed couple live out their lifelong dream. Sadly, the Arcade Hotel, where Screamin’ Jay Hawkins mans the check-in, was demolished after filming and is now a gelato ice cream store. On the plus side, you can still visit the aforementioned café, also featured in Great Balls of Fire, The Client, and Walk the Line. Time capsules don’t come much better than this
Memphis is arguably best known, in movies, as the location for almost every John Grisham flick ever. Chief among them is The Firm, in which Tom Cruise’s besuited lawyer backflips down Beale Street with a random kid. Then there’s the unforgettable chase sequence at the Mud Island Monorail, Cruise pursued on foot by the fearsome firm. In the background – as in most Grisham movies – you can spot the iconic Memphis Pyramid. All these locations still exist, meaning when they do a remake – and they will do a remake – they can save some cash by not hiring a location scout.
Walk The Line
Originally to be shot in Louisiana, Walk the Line hops across State lines from Arkansas – where Johnny Cash was born – to Memphis. Here, you see Cash pick up work as a door-to-door salesman. Naturally, being a story tethered to musical history and being filmed in Memphis, Sun Studio was bound to have a cameo. It’s here where Cash casually strolls past, his life changed forever. Next thing you know he’s a star-in-the-making performing to the owner of Sun Records. Also, look out for the Orpheum Theatre, the historic 2,308-seat venue in downtown, at the intersection of South Main and Beale streets.
This seminal 1996 documentary chronicles the infamous child murders at Robin Hood Hills and the case of the West Memphis Three. What’s striking, beyond the detailing of the case, is the strong sense of place: run-down trailer parks, backwater towns, long open roads. It’s a side of Memphis you don’t often see at the movies. It’s the real deal, and it’s a brilliant companion piece to West of Memphis, Amy Berg’s investigative doc that picks up the same story some 20 years later.
Showered with plaudits on its release in 2003, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams isn’t a film you immediately associate with Memphis. There are no sharp-suited lawyers striding down Beale Street, no nods to the city’s musical legacy. And yet: this intense, multi-threaded drama starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts – which zooms in on grief and tragedy in the shadow of a life-changing car accident – was mostly shot in The River City. You catch glimpses of the classy Chickshaw Gardens neighborhood; you see the old Baptist Memorial Hospital, now disused, where Penn recovers from the crash; and then the restaurant scene, which was shot at what’s now Westy’s, a diner in the Pinch District. So there you have it. 21 Grams: a certified Memphis movie.
Though Harmony Korine’s directorial debut was set in Xenia, Ohio, it was shot in his hometown of Nashville. The locations were suitably shabby. The houses where he filmed were so scummy the crew refused to go in. “I got angry with [the crew] because I thought they were pussies. I mean, all we're talking about is bugs and a disgusting rotting smell," he once told Werner Herzog. The arthouse classic – which follows two kids in a tornado-ravaged town – was shot on a $1 million budget, with Korine discovering most of the cast in Nashville, on the street, in bowling alleys and in fast food joints.
Country music and politics collide in Robert Altman’s 70s satire, which, for obvious reasons, was bound to end up on this list. Interestingly, its tale of intersecting lives between country stars and politicians didn’t go down well in the Music City. Specifically, it ruffled feathers in the country scene. Why? Well, it’s a satire of the local recording industry, for one thing, and some characters were presumably too close to home. Just take Barbara Jean, the delicate country megastar; or Haven Hamilton, the super-religious, super-patriotic singer with the bad toupee. No one wants to be compared to these guys.
Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)
Whereas Nashville touched a nerve with local musicians, Coal Miner’s Daughter was critically lauded, bagging Sissy Spacek an Oscar for her portrayal of Loretta Lynn (though Lynn herself chose not to see the movie). The comprehensive biopic shows how Lynn was propelled to superstardom from humble beginnings in Kentucky. Some of it is shot there, other bits in Virginia, and obviously a generous slice is devoted to her Nashville years. Be sure to look out for the city’s legendary Ryman Auditorium, still the city’s premier music venue.
The Thing Called Love (1993)
On a Nashville-bound Greyhound from NYC, we enter Music City with Miranda Presley (“no relation,” she insists). She’s a hopeful singer-songwriter seeking stardom and love, the latter of which she finds in the form of River Phoenix, who – in what turned out to be his final performance – proved his chops as a guitar player/singer. With the tagline, ‘Stand by your dream’, the movie is country to its core. It even features the legendary Bluebird Café, known for catapulting fresh-faced singer-songwriters to stardom. Other Nashville spots include the Drake Motel and the now-demolished Blakey’s Diner. The highlight of this underrated 90s movie? Watching Phoenix scream from a rooftop: “Look out, Music City, because I’m here and I ain’t never leaving!”
The Green Mile (1999)
Like 21 Grams, this one might throw you. It was set in Louisiana not Nashville. On screen, the prison you see – where Tom Hanks observes Mr Jingles’s circus tricks – is the old Tennessee State Penitentiary, located in West Nashville. It opened in 1898 and closed in 1992 (it also appeared in 2005’s Walk the Line). And that’s not the only glimpse of Nashville. Remember the scene where John Coffey tries to “take back” the bad thing that happened to the two girls? That was by the Old Train Bridge across from Caney Fork River, at Buffalo Valley, a few miles east of Nashville. And the church where the funeral is held? That was College Grove United Methodist Church, a few miles south of the city. If anything, The Green Mile is proof that Nashville’s storied history on the silver screen goes far beyond heartbroken country singers.