REVIEW | OPINION: ‘Present Tense’

Andrew Bryant in “Present Tense.”
Andrew Bryant in “Present Tense.”


In the 1960s and '70s, there were outfits that -- for $25 or $50 or $250 -- would convert your poems or lyrics into a "song" fitted with a melody and performed by professional musicians. This business model lives on today, though the prices are higher and the professional musicians are likely augmented by artificial intelligence.

If you look at it one way, it's an honest service. If you want to give your sweetheart a song to mark an occasion or announce your affection, it's not an unreasonable price to pay.

On the other hand, it's very unlikely that the song produced will be anything other than a rapidly realized exercise where the client's words are set to a melody of convenience and (professionally) sung over one of a limited number of recorded backing tracks.

What emerges might be touching, or even listenable, but the odds of it being art are long. A good song is a thing that breathes, where the words and melody are organically paired -- a love match rather than a shotgun wedding. Nuance and grace often count for more than cool competence.

I have to admit when I heard about Gerard Matthews' "Present Tense," a documentary about an obscure Mississippi musician making an album, I had measured expectations. (The documentary is screening Thursday at CALS Ron Robinson Theater in Little Rock.) While Matthews -- who, along with Arkansas Cinema Society's co-founder Kathryn Tucker, directed 2021's "A Good Campaign," a documentary about Clarke Tucker's bid for U.S. Congress in 2018 -- would be on the short list of local filmmakers I'd enlist to help me if I was charged with making a movie, "Present Tense" seemed like a work for hire. I expected competence, good sound and clean lines, a demonstration of a skill and ability.

I expected to be impressed. I didn't expect to be moved.

But I wasn't familiar with Mississippi-based Andrew Bryant, the artist the film follows, as he records his sixth solo album "Prodigal," working with remarkable producer Bruce Watson at Watson's Delta-Sonic Sound in Memphis in late 2021 and 2022.

I had a vague idea about Bryant's old band Water Liars, but I didn't know their music well and never heard any of Bryant's solo work. (I'm remedying that; "Prodigal," released Nov. 3, is s spooky-souled folk-pop record rich with ghosts and the sort of gothic religiosity with which sensitive kids growing up in small Southern towns have always had to wrestle; at one point during the film Bryant says he only thought he was making a record about his past but, like Faulkner, he discovered the past wasn't really past.)

There is an intimation that this is the first of Bryant's solo albums to feature outside musicians; that before going into the studio with Watson and an all-star lineup of Memphis musicians including Will Sexton, Mark Edgar Stuart, Will McCarley, Rick Steff, Art Edmaiston and Jim Spake, Bryant had recorded in his home studio, playing all the instruments himself. While the results had been more than acceptable, as Watson says in the film, bringing other musicians in on a project sometimes opens up a record as other creative intelligences apply themselves to the work.

Matthews captures some of these moments, as Sexton -- who for the past decade has regularly collaborated with Watson -- adds some eerie textures to Bryant's tracks via a looper pedal, much to the delight of the artist. He also captures some of the drudgery and deep focus of studio work, as Bryant works to polish vocals. He captures a conversation between pianist Steff and Bryant, as the songwriter talks about his mother's churchy piano style and how Steff captures the feel of her playing.

Interspersed with the in-studio scenes are walk-and-talk sequences with Bryant revisiting his tiny hometown of Bruce (about 30 miles south of Oxford, where Bryant lives with his educator wife Sarah-SoonLing and his three children), the nearby community of Pittboro, and making music in his home, scenes that locate the movie in lived-in reality and establish Bryant as a not altogether exotic artist but as one of those soft-spoken boys who walk among us.

No documentary succeeds without a compelling subject, and Bryant is a deeply fascinating study. While "Present Tense" does serve as a promotional tool for Bryant's album, it's also a poignant and refreshing look at how one might live as an artist in these interesting times. Bryant says he doesn't measure success in terms of records sold or Spotify statistics; "Present Tense" convinces us he's telling the truth.

This is no vanity project or calling-card movie; it's a serious and valuable investigation of the process of creative collaboration.

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88 Cast: Andrew Bryant, Bruce Watson, Will Sexton, Mark Edgar Stuart,Will McCarley, Alex Greene, Rick Steff, Jim Spake, Art Edmaiston, Krysta Lynne Wroten, Jana Misener, Sarah-SoonLing

Director: Gerard Matthews

Rating: Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 1 minute

"Present Tense" will screen at CALS Ron Robinson Theatre, 7 p.m. Thursday with a Q&A and a short performance by Bryant to follow. (Tickets are $15 available and available at presenttensedoc.com.)

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