Willis Earl Beal—the young actor, poet, and already mythic bluesman who plays the lead in the Sundance Film Festival hit Memphis, itself about a blues musician—sings with a voice that will make you tremble and comes to the world with a backstory that will make you fall in love. Born in Chicago, he spent his early years traveling the country, working a bunch of dead-end jobs, all the while leaving homemade CDs and posters around. (Both to expose his music and find a girlfriend. He’s married now.) As you might guess, the music world somehow stumbled upon one of his CDs, and he quickly acquired a cult following as a sometimes experimental, truly modern blues singer.
Today, Memphis opens in New York, and we invited Beal to stop by my apartment to record and film a special live version of his song “Sun Down.” The video speaks for itself, but by way of introduction, here is how the director of Memphis, Tim Sutton, explained to us what drew him to Beal’s music and eventually led him to cast the unknown as the lead in his film.
“Putting Willis’s backstory—both real and devised—aside, when I saw a clip of him singing on his grandmother’s back porch, two things completely blew my mind. The first was the voice—the enormous power stitched together with an elegant, lilting falsetto—immediately struck me as in league with legends. It was like catching a glimpse of Aretha Franklin before anyone knew her. It had such weight, it was so pure, and the lyrics had such poetry and intellect. But even more important was that, in between the notes he sang—the rests—he was entirely gone. He was in a deep trance. His entire spirit was drained until the next note came back. He was living something out on a very deep level, and for nothing . . . just on a porch . . . anonymous.”
Memphis opens in New York at the IFC Center today, and in L.A. next Friday, September 12, at the Sundance Sunset Cinema, with other cities to follow.
The post The Star of Sundance Hit Memphis, Willis Earl Beal, Performs Exclusively for Vogue appeared first on Vogue.