Sex & Cinema & Rock ‘n’ Roll: Massive new book celebrates Memphis filmmaker Mike McCarthy

Australian artist Neryl Walker created the wraparound dustcover art for the Fantagraphics book

You know those hefty, expensive, painstakingly designed and impeccably assembled hardcover coffee table books you see in art museum stores that are devoted to such subjects as the Sistine Chapel, the water lilies of Monet and the Chicago skyline?

Memphis filmmaker Mike McCarthy has produced a similar volume. About himself. 

Weighing in at close to 6 pounds, and with 336 oversized pages that each cover more than a square foot, the $75 tome “Teenage Tupelo” is a startling and unexpected artifact that chronicles the origins, production, legacy and — most important — cultural context of the micro-budget movie of the same title, which writer-director McCarthy — the self-described “godfather of Memphis independent cinema” — shot in Memphis and Mississippi in 1995. 

With a budget more than double the $12,000 that McCarthy and his patient investors spent on the actual film, the “Teenage Tupelo” book is loaded with new critical and personal essays, contemporary reviews, reminiscences from collaborators, deep dives into the filmmaker’s tangled-as-kudzu family history, and hundreds of drawings and photographs, including many nude shots of the so-called “starlets” — local actresses and scenesters — who appeared in McCarthy’s films, under such real names and aliases as Sophie Couch, Dawn Ashcraft, Kristen Hobbs and D’Lana Tunnell (who earned greater notoriety as the cover model on albums by Memphis’ premier 1990s punk band, the Oblivians).

“It’s my own personal Playboy, but with my friends naked,” McCarthy said of the book, which has an Oct. 10 debut date that will be followed by a weekend of local “Teenage Tupelo” activities, including a book signing, concert and movie screening.

Exemplifying what the the filmmaker calls

A vanity project for the filmmaker but not a vanity project in book industry terms, the thousand-copy run of “Teenage Tupelo” was published by Fantagraphics Underground, an imprint of Fantagraphics, a Seattle-based company that for close to half a century has devoted itself to “the very best comics and graphic novels that the medium has to offer,” according to its website. Although its Underground line showcases the “idiosyncratic” and the “experimental,” the company is probably best known its definitive collections of the great comic strips, including “Krazy Kat,” “Pogo,” “Peanuts” and “Walt Disney’s Micky Mouse.”

Mickey might be flummoxed by McCarthy’s creation. In a introduction on the flap of the book, McCarthy, 60, writes: “You are about to enter the world of my underground comics, my low-budget, Exploitation filmmaking, my punk-rock ideology…” He describes the movie “Teenage Tupelo” as “a semi-auto-bio-comedy-drama that amounted to creating a new American novelty in the form of an old-school dirty movie,” inspired by his attempt to discover “my true identity as the adopted child of an adopted child.” (The movie taps into McCarthy’s fantasy that he might have been Elvis’ child, but his real story has its own crazy local connection: The filmmaker’s adoptive mother was raised in the Memphis orphanage run by the infamous “black market” baby profiteer, Georgia Tann.)

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For McCarthy, who grew up near Elvis’ hometown of Tupelo, Memphis was a cultural mecca that offered an abundance of music, movies and comic books. He moved here to attend art school and has lived here since, making ends (barely) meet with odd jobs and sometimes even odder art, creating comics, rock ‘n’ roll, “happenings,” music videos, and art/exploitation films — “unpopular culture,” in his self-deprecating assessment.

Occasionally, he hits the mainstream: His most accessible piece is probably the lifesize bronze Johnny Cash statue he sculpted in 2019, which stands in the Cooper-Young neighborhood near Galloway Methodist Church, where Cash played his first Memphis concert. McCarthy hopes to get sponsors for similar strategically placed statues of Memphis music legends, and has sculpted clay models of Rufus Thomas, Aretha Franklin and Howlin’ Wolf.

Artist Mike McCarthy, in the living room of his Cooper-Young home, with the clay Johnny Cash sculpture that would be the basis of the bronze statue set to be unveiled June 12, 2019.

But McCarthy’s almost no-budget Memphis movies — which followed in the do-it-yourself wake of “sexploitation” pioneer Russ Meyer and Baltimore’s “Prince of Puke,” John Waters, but preceded most Memphis “indie” production and the “mumblecore” regional filmmaking movement — remain his signature achievement. Shot mostly in black-and-white on Super 8 film, “Teenage Tupelo” is the second and perhaps most essential of McCarthy’s seven completed features, thanks to its highly personal motivation, its documentary-style use of now vanished, even iconic locations, its score by Memphis surf/noir band Impala, and its dreamlike structure, which seeks to erase the boundary between “real” and “reel” life in pursuit of an ideal self-identity.

In conjunction with the book (which McCarthy and designer Brian Dixon began planning during the COVID pandemic, and which includes contributions from the archives of The Commercial Appeal), McCarthy’s own Guerrilla Monster Films company has issued a remastered Blu-ray edition of “Teenage Tupelo,” loaded with hours of bonus material. Meanwhile, Saturn’s Core, a New Jersey label devoted to “underground oddities,” has resurrected McCarthy’s 1994 shot-on-video debut feature, “Damselvis, Daughter of Helvis,” giving it a Criterion Collection-level of attention that includes commentaries, interviews, documentaries, and more.

“Coming out of Mississippi, I had stories to tell, and I picked a form of cinema to tell them,” McCarthy said. Meanwhile, the book, like the movie, offers what the indefatigable artist calls “a uniquely Southern story of Elvis, adoption and sexploitation.”

“The subject matter is adult,” he said, “but the story is fun.”

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‘Teenage Tupelo’ in Memphis

Soundtrack listening event: 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 12, in the Memphis Listening Lab, Crosstown Concourse: Director Mike McCarthy, film cast and crew, and members of the Memphis surf/noir/jazz/rock band Impala, which composed and performed the film’s score, will discuss the soundtrack to “Teenage Tupelo,” in the latest in the Listening Lab’s series of public “album-listening” events. The format: The album is played for the audience on the lab’s state-of-the-art sound system; the artists introduce the music, and discuss the album after it is played or in between several songs. A question-and-answer session follows. Admission is free. For more information, visit

“Teenage Tupelo”: 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 13, Malco Studio on the Square: A remastered version of the 1995 movie will screen, preceded by a new short, “Super Thrift,” by McCarthy’s son, John Marvel. Live music by Poli Sci Clone precedes the film. A question-and-answer session with McCarthy and others will follow. Regular movie admission prices apply. Visit for advance tickets.

“‘Teen Tupe’ on Tap”: 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 14, Cooper House Project Taproom, 906 Cooper: “Sip suds with the starlets!” is among the come-ons for this book-signing-plus-beer event, where copies of the Fantagraphics book will be on sale. Co-sponsored by Burke’s Book Store.

Impala in concert: 8 p.m., Bar DKDC, 964 Cooper: The storied Memphis band performs its “Teenage Tupelo” score live, in what doubles as a release party for the new vinyl soundtrack album and the new bonus-loaded remastered Blu-ray. Doors open at 7 p.m. Admission: $15.

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