Ardent Film Thriving Under Pekar’s Lead

By Jennifer Johnson Backer

In a few short years, Jonathan Pekar has created a formidable film department at Memphis-based Ardent Studios.


(Jamie Harmon)

The Memphis native has quickly racked up both local and national accolades, including a MidSouth Emmy award for Best Commercial Spot for the Memphis Music Foundation. Pekar returned to Memphis after more than two decades in Los Angeles, where he worked as a comedian, producer, film director and actor, including a stint as the producer of Shark Week at The Discovery Channel.

Pekar says he has built upon Ardent’s success with “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me,” a feature-length documentary on the iconic Memphis-based band Big Star. Ardent founder John Fry served as music director and executive producer, along with a team of New York-based filmmakers including, Drew DeNicola, Danielle MacCarthy, Olivia Mari and Gill Holland. Fry also recorded Big Star’s records.

“There is no Big Star without John Fry,” Pekar said. “I think everyone would safely admit to that.”

The band never reached mainstream success in their heyday, but Big Star has been cited as an influence by R.E.M., The Replacements, Belle and Sebastian, Elliot Smith and The Flaming Lips. The documentary will show at local theaters this weekend, including Studio on the Square.

“There are so many Memphis Big Star fans, it’s silly not to put it in theaters here,” Pekar said. “It’s really pretty cool that there are that many Big Star fans.”

Pekar has unique ties to both Big Star and Ardent Studios. His father, Ron Pekar, was once Ardent’s graphic designer and created the studio’s logo as well as the logo for Big Star. His parents were friends with Fry and the members of Big Star.

By Pekar’s account, the film was already in the “fourth quarter” by the time he arrived on the scene, but he has continued to build upon the film’s success. A music video he made for the Memphis band Lucero’s song “Women and Work” currently airs on CMT and he’s also working on a TV show called Kids of Memphis” that will debut in December. In two years, he’s worked on some 52 projects for both local and national clients.

While the Ardent film department creates everything from commercials and training videos to feature films, Pekar’s personal favorites involve what he calls “edutainment” – high-quality production that blends entertainment and education.

Pekar says he chose to produce Shark Week at The Discovery Channel because he thought it would be educational.

“I didn’t think I’d be pouring blood in the water and waiting,” he said. “I went to USC film school for this? Ruining the ecosystem, screwing with these sharks – they are not supposed to know what cow blood tastes like.”

Pekar says the dives could also be a little scary since he isn’t a certified scuba diver. He’d shoot the sharks from a cage lowered deep into the water with special breathing gear.

“Doing that stuff, I was more scared of the breathing apparatus than this big thing swimming outside the cage,” he said. “It’s life changing to swim with an animal bigger than a Volkswagen.”

Producing his new show, “Kids of Memphis” is more Pekar’s speed these days. The show will feature local kids solving problems around the city.

“It’s a feel-good show about Memphis that has a little muscle to it,” he said. “It’s very positive.”

He plans to complete local casting within the next few weeks and will be showing the pilot to PBS, E!, The Discovery Channel, the Oprah Winfrey Network and other networks that have expressed an interest.

Other projects in the works include a short film commissioned by the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau. The film will celebrate Memphis’ music history from past to present and will be shown at the baggage pickup area at Memphis International Airport.

An aficionado of all things Memphis, Pekar enthused about his favorite local artists and filmmakers – everyone from Star & Micey to Amy LaVere – as he played the jazzy number he composed for the film.

“It was such a tough decision, whose song do you choose?” he said. “It got to the point where I said I’d write the song and find the best Memphis musicians to play it.”