Writer-director Tim Sutton made a lovely, lyrical debut with Pavilion (2012), a free-floating study of a disaffected New York teen uprooted to arid Arizona. The filmmaker’s second feature is an unfortunate sophomore slump, an abrasive and opaque artist-in-crisis story that feels protracted at barely 80 minutes. At least Sutton has chosen a magnetic protagonist in real-life musician Willis Earl Beal, riffing on his own persona as a self-styled “wizard” whose compositional talents are, to his mind, God-given. He’s riding high in the early scenes, holding court during a television interview and cockily cruising around the eponymous Tennessee city in his Lincoln Town Car. But it’s a short-lived euphoria: After he’s unable to sing in front of a church congregation, Beal begins a slow slide into creative lethargy— a problem considering he owes his label a new album.
Sutton’s approach is in no way standard. Like Pavilion, he approaches the story impressionistically, following Beal as if he were the fixed point in an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of snatched moments. A few of these shapeless scenes make a raw impact, especially the ones that merely observe people at worship in the city’s prevalent Baptist parishes. It’s here that Sutton allows the doc-like qualities of the project to hold sway, and the sense of life being lived is intoxicating. Only one other sequence—in which Beal and his band have a disastrous recording session—has anything approaching the same power. Otherwise, it feels like Sutton is constantly trying to force our empathy with Beal’s creative-cum-spiritual dilemma rather than let it develop organically, and it makes for an exasperating experience.
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