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VOL. 121 | NO. 227 | Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The British Are Coming ... And Going

Contingent of UK journalists sips flavor of Memphis during tour

By Andy Meek

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TORIES AND LORRIES: From Downtown to Midtown and points in between, the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau gave a small contingent of British journalists a tour of movie-themed locales in the city. -- Photo Courtesy Of The Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau

Kevin Bourke, a British journalist who covers film, music and theater for the Manchester Evening News, began a story he wrote in 2005 for the paper with the following question: Is Memphis the most significant music city in the world?

His answer - "probably" - preceded a thoughtful rumination on Bluff City landmarks both gritty and legendary. He touted the usual tourist haunts, places like Sun Studios and the National Civil Rights Museum. But spots such as Wild Bill's, the blues juke joint at 1580 Vollintine Ave., and Al Green's Full Gospel Tabernacle, where the former soul singer now preaches, also got a mention.

"Of course," Bourke wrote, "there are other U.S. cities - not least Nashville, Austin, Chicago and New Orleans - the very mention of which can make a true music fan's heart beat a bit faster."

But last weekend, it wasn't in any of those cities where Bourke and three other journalists from the United Kingdom were being whisked from one destination to another. Led by a contingent from the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB), the four reporters spent several days here, soaking up enough local color to fill a novel.

Whirlwind tour

Among their stops was a tour of Ardent Studios on Madison Avenue, where the illustrious recording facility is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. The quartet of British newsmen got a 90-minute walkthrough of Ardent that included visits with studio founder John Fry, Big Star drummer Jody Stephens and Scott Bomar, who - among his other projects - wrote the film score for Memphis director Craig Brewer's film "Hustle & Flow."

Not long after, they sat down for lunch at The Arcade Restaurant, where owner Harry Zepatos Jr. recounted the stories that go hand-in-hand with owning a Memphis landmark to which one filmmaker after another has flocked.

The remainder of the tour cut a wide swath through the rest of the city, touching down everywhere from the Memphis College of Art to Goner Records to Galloway United Methodist Church.

The inspiration for the trip wasn't complicated. Hosted by the CVB, it was put together as a vehicle for telling Memphis' story, packaged specially for an audience that's an ocean away.

British invasion

Including Bourke, the four journalists in town from regional UK publications were Adam Gretton, a reporter for the Eastern Daily Press; Alistair McKay, who writes for Scotland on Sunday; and Mark Andrews, who writes for The Express & Star.

"We have an association with a company in England that promotes Memphis for tourism," said Peter Short, the CVB's travel media manager. "Memphis does really well with European audiences because of things like Stax, Hi Records, Elvis - they have a great appreciation for all that in Europe, so periodically we'll bring in these writers from England and such."

But while those trips usually are built around Memphis' place in the pantheon of popular music, this time the idea was to try something different. Short said the goal was to introduce international reporters to Memphis' emergence as a haven for filmmakers.

That explains, for instance, the choice of locales on the itinerary, such as The Arcade.

At one point during their lunch, Zepatos gestured to a large-scale logo painted on the inside of the restaurant that looks as though it's weathered several decades. Zepatos told his enraptured audience the logo was created by the crew for "21 Grams," which used the diner as a scene in the 2003 film.

They also heard behind-the-scenes details about "My Blueberry Nights," a film directed by Wong Kar-Wai and slated for release in 2007. The cast includes singer Norah Jones, Rachel Weisz, Jude Law and Natalie Portman, and some of the scenes were filmed recently at The Arcade.

"I must have made about 100 different things," Zepatos said of the restaurant dishes he made as props for that film.

Memphis goes 'cosmopolitan'

Onward the journalists' road-trip-of-a-story-assignment went. Cat Power, the singer-songwriter who recorded her latest CD, "The Greatest," at Ardent and used local musicians for the project, was in town last week playing a gig at the New Daisy, so the tour included that show.

A scene in "Hustle & Flow" in which the lead character is brought to tears by the song of a gospel choir was filmed inside Galloway United Methodist Church in Midtown, so the tour went there. Last Thursday, the journalists attended a reception in their honor at Power House in the South Main Arts District, with local writers and others offering their take on Memphis music and movies.

"It's a very cosmopolitan city, and you've obviously got a creative base here as well," said Andrews, offering his thoughts on Memphis over lunch at the Arcade.

Kelly Earnest, a spokesperson for The Peabody Hotel, said the group also stopped there. The journalists were taken to the roof, where a scene for "The Firm" was filmed, and they dined in the Peabody's Chez Phillipe restaurant, the setting for a scene from "The Client."

"All of the places we'll visit aren't tourist spots," Short said of the tour. "But this gives them context for films and the city."

After-dinner mint

After the group's meal at The Arcade, they headed a few blocks north on Main Street to Craig Brewer's office. He's not in town at the moment, but the train of journalists was ushered anyway into Brewer's office, where they were shown a trailer for "Black Snake Moan," the director's soon-to-be-released film that also was shot in Memphis. It stars Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci, and the soundtrack - as with Brewer's previous film - was recorded at Ardent.

The journalists then shared a nearly 40-minute conference call with Brewer himself.

"For me, I think these guys got a sense of how easy it is to be creative in this city," Short said. "And I think they were definitely affected by the warmth of the people. Craig described Memphis as the smallest big city he's ever known."

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