'$5 Cover' Lets Memphis Musicians Tell Their Stories

'Hustle & Flow' director Craig Brewer combines storytelling and performance in new MTV series.

Craig Brewer's love of the Memphis, Tennessee, music scene is no mystery. The writer/director has already featured it prominently in his last two movies — hip-hop in "Hustle & Flow" and Delta blues in "Black Snake Moan." But Brewer's new TV series, [url id="http://www.mtv.com/fivedollarcover/"]"$5 Cover"[/url] (premiering Friday at midnight on MTV), puts Memphis music front and center.

"I live in a really special place, and I think all the musicians that are in the show are good because of where they live," Brewer told MTV News when we spoke with him at the [url id="http://www.mtv.com/specials/sxsw/"]2009 South by Southwest music festival[/url]. Inspired by the rich musical legacy of Memphis (Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin and Justin Timberlake, just to name a few), as well as a thriving local scene, he set out to find a way that he could showcase the wealth of talent his city has to offer. "I thought, 'How can I make an experience where the world comes to our backyard?' "

And so, "$5 Cover" was born. In the series, up-and-coming Memphis musicians re-enact fictionalized stories from their personal and professional lives. Brewer said the project is the brainchild of one particularly steamy Memphis summer, when the power in his neighborhood went out. "Three weeks without power in August is pretty brutal," he said. "And so, all these musicians were out on their porches, playing and singing."

It wasn't long before the heat started getting to people, and stories began to come out of people hooking up in the dark and fighting on the streets. "The heat started baking everybody's brains ... and I thought, 'That would make a really good idea for some sort of movie, or series of movies where you only use real musicians and improv the whole thing, and it's all about the trials and tribulations of being a struggling artist."

Of course, what really sets "$5 Cover" apart is not just the focus on Memphis music, but rather the focus on the musicians themselves. Brewer brought together a diverse group of Memphis musicians — everyone from rocker Ben Nichols to rapper Al Kapone to blues/country singer Amy LaVere — not just to contribute music, but to appear in the series as actors and share their stories.

Brewer set out to create a realistic vision of the Memphis music community by having the musicians play themselves and perform their own music. "The biggest surprise of this whole project was how good the musicians were in this show. ... They were oddly comfortable just being in front of the camera and having conversations." In fact, Brewer wanted the musicians to have freedom to express their stories in their own unique way, so he avoided writing dialogue whenever he could, encouraging the musicians to improvise their onscreen interactions. "I want whatever's in their heads to come out ... and musicians have a lot in their head, and I think they're comfortable expressing that."

"$5 Cover" premieres Friday at midnight on MTV and on FiveDollarCover.com.