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Movie with the Memphis Sound
The hometown look and sound of Stax won over the makers of 'Soul Men'
By John Beifuss | April 3, 2008

The Peabody ducks are used to bright lights and rubberneckers. But the tourists who lined the mezzanine above the lobby and aimed their cameras in the direction of the hotel's celebrity waterfowl one evening last week were stalking bigger game: Movie stars Bernie Mac and Samuel L. Jackson, shooting scenes for "Soul Men," a comedy that will cast a warm spotlight on Memphis and Memphis music in particular when it hits theaters nationwide in October.

Described by one observer as "'Grumpier Old Men' meets 'The Blues Brothers,'" "Soul Men" -- which finished shooting Tuesday in Los Angeles -- casts Jackson and Mac as Louis and Floyd, foul-mouthed former backup singers and estranged survivors of The Real Deal, a classic rhythm-and-blues vocal group that had its heyday in the 1970s.

Now an auto mechanic and a car-wash entrepreneur, respectively, Louis and Floyd never achieved the fame of their ex-lead singer, Marcus (played, in flashback, by young neosoul star John Legend). In other words, Marcus became Smokey Robinson, while Louis and Floyd remained a couple of minor Miracles.

That Motown analogy is imprecise, however, because "Soul Men" takes its inspiration from the sounds of Stax, the famous Memphis soul and rhythm-and-blues label. Much of the movie is set in the characters'old stomping ground of Memphis. Louis and Floyd stop in the city during a cross-country drive from California to Harlem's legendary Apollo Theater, where they plan to perform during a memorial tribute for their recently deceased lead singer.

"This movie has a great affinity for the history of Stax," said producer David T. Friendly (son of the late Fred Friendly, the legendary CBS News pioneer portrayed by George Clooney in the film "Good Night, and Good Luck"). "The Stax sound is so distinctive, so muscular, and the movie is a loving tribute to that sound and that era, to some degree."

He added: "It's rare that you get to create a movie that's fiction and then go to a place where it might have happened." He said he hopes to host a special premiere screening for the film in Memphis.

Sitting in The Peabody lobby during a break in filming March 25, "Soul Men" director Malcolm D. Lee said the film's script (by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone) didn't call for much location shooting in Memphis.

"Originally, the only locations in Memphis were The Peabody and the bridge, but as I started going around town, I said, 'We gotta do more,' " said Lee (first cousin of Spike Lee), whose Martin Lawrence comedy, "Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins," is now in theaters.

"I said, 'We gotta include Stax, we gotta include Beale Street, we gotta include the Lorraine Motel, we gotta show some vistas of Memphis.' It wasn't in our original schedule or budget, but I said, 'We gotta make it happen,'" said Lee, 38, whose first feature as a director was "The Best Man" (1999), with Taye Diggs, Nia Long and Terrence Howard.

On March 19 and 20, the "Soul Men" crew shot all over town -- mostly scenes of Jackson and Mac and actress Sharon Leal ("Dreamgirls") cruising around town in a 1971 lime-green Cadillac El Dorado convertible known as "The Mothership." After a long Easter weekend, shooting resumed March 24 and 25 at The Peabody, wrapping at almost 6 a.m. Wednesday, March 26. "Soul Men" is a Dimension Films production, to be distributed by MGM.

During the film, Jackson, Mac and Leal perform versions of such Stax recordings as Rufus Thomas' "Boogie Ain't Nuttin' (But Gettin' Down)," Carla Thomas' "Comfort Me" and Isaac Hayes' "Do Your Thing," as well as the big Sam and Dave hit "Hold On, I'm Comin'," in a scene set in a Tulsa country-and-western bar.

For "Do Your Thing," the stars were backed by The Bo-Keys, the Memphis band led by "Hustle & Flow" score composer Scott Bomar that features such veteran Stax musicians as guitarist Charles "Skip" Pitts, drummer Willie Hall and trumpet player Ben Cauley (the sole survivor of the 1967 plane crash that killed Otis Redding). Lee said he became interested in Cauley's participation when he read a feature story about the musician in The Commercial Appeal on Dec. 9, when he was in town scouting locations.

"It was great to have those pieces of living history in the film," Lee said.

Although the "Do Your Thing" sequence includes a cameo appearance by Isaac Hayes and takes place, in the story, in a House of Blues-style commercial nightclub in Memphis called "The House of Soul," the scenes were shot on a set in Shreveport, La.

In fact, sets in Shreveport were built to double for such locations as a massage room at The Peabody, as well as the Apollo in Harlem and the Tulsa country bar. (Also, a scene set in a suite at The Peabody was shot for scheduling convenience at Sam's Town in Tunica.)

The reason: When the bottom line is the top reason for choosing a location, Tennessee has trouble beating Louisiana, a state that offers rebates to filmmakers on even such "above the line" costs as star salaries. However, Memphis is more competitive than ever before, thanks to the state and local financial incentives for filmmakers that have been offered since last year; this was demonstrated when producers of the Washington-set movie "Nothing But the Truth" decided to shoot their Kate Beckinsale-Matt Dillon journalism story here.

"If it was up to the guys, we would have shot the whole thing in Memphis," said Mark McNair, the line producer for "Soul Men," a job that requires him to handle the scheduling and budgeting of the film's production.

Even so, he said, "Soul Men" will have "more value for Memphis than any other city in the script."

The value isn't all theoretical, said McNair, 46, who was born here but whose family moved from Memphis when he was a toddler. He said "Soul Men" employed about 75 local crew and cast members for its four days of shooting here, and spent about $2 million in the city.

The Peabody public relations director Kelly Earnest said hosting a movie shoot is "a lot of work, but I think it's going to be well worth it in the end. It's going to be the kind of exposure we haven't had in a major film since 'The Firm.'"

She said the production had rented "more than 50 rooms" in the hotel for cast and crew, "but the main benefit is publicity."

The challenge, Earnest said, is to remain open for business despite a lobby temporarily crammed with cables, lights and people with tool belts and headsets.

She said she first met with "Soul Men" representatives in November of 2007, telling them that they had to agree to shoot at a "low occupancy rate" time of year, and at night, "to minimize interference. We have to have our lobby back in pristine condition by 7 a.m."

In fact, The Peabody faced a double challenge in March: "Soul Men" arrived in Memphis immediately after writer-director Michael Meredith's "The Open Road," an independent film starring Justin Timberlake, Jeff Bridges and Lyle Lovett (as a Peabody bartender). She said planning for "The Open Road" began in December of 2006. The movie shot for two days at the hotel.

Both movies were recruited by the Memphis Film Commission. And both required the services of The Peabody ducks, who were needed to perform their signature march between the elevator and the lobby fountain at times other than their regular showtimes of 11 a.m. and 5 p.m.

"Ducks are creatures of habit, creatures of routine," said hotel duckmaster Jason Sensat, 34. "It's a little weird on their internal clocks. But they required just five takes with Justin, about the same as the human actors.

For "Soul Men," the ducks were waddled before the camera at about 2 a.m. "They're pros, even though we woke them up in the middle of the night," Earnest said.



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