Michael O’Sullivan (c) 2014, The Washington Post. A love song set to the music of Memphis, the film “Take Me to the River” is very much in the mold of “Muscle Shoals,” the 2013 documentary that celebrated that titular Alabama city and its two most famous recording studios, FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound. Yet while “River” also serves as a paean to fertile musical ground — citing such pioneering Memphis studios as Hi, Royal, Sun and, above all, Stax — it ultimately feels like a teaser for the soundtrack album of the same name.
Documenting recording sessions pairing such giants of Memphis soul and R&B as Booker T. Jones and Otis Clay with such rappers as Al Kapone and Lil P-Nut, “River” is, at heart, a making-of movie. The music almost certainly will put a smile on your face, but it just as certainly seems calculated to sell copies of “Take Me to the River,” the album.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Directed by Martin Shore (who also produced the album), “Take Me to the River” sounds great, but it’s also frustrating to hear only snippets of such tunes as Rufus Thomas’s “Push and Pull” as reimagined by bluesman Bobby Rush and rapper Frayser Boy. Other standout performances include the vocals of Mavis Staples on “Wish I Had Answered” and the musicianship of a group of talented teenagers from the Stax Music Academy, a school born out of the ashes of Stax Records, which shut down as an active studio in 1975. These kids, some of whom we’ll no doubt be hearing from again, perform on a couple of tracks, notably with Snoop Dogg, who uses his screen time expounding — a little too effusively, for my taste — about the legacy of his legendary forebears.
It’s much more rewarding to listen to the actual elders speak — and sing — especially since they’re not going to be around forever. In fact, two of the artists featured in the film, Bobby “Blue” Bland and Hubert Sumlin, have since died.
Narrated, alternately, by director Shore and actor Terrence Howard (who also sings “Walk Away” with the Hi Rhythm Section, the house band at Hi Records), “Take Me to the River” includes just enough history of the civil rights era to lend it gravitas. The color-blind recording practices of studios like Stax were an anomaly at the time, and are well worth noting.
But it’s the music people will want to hearken to. For a toe-tapping sample, check out the film. For a more soul-satisfying earful, pick up the whole album.
Two and a half stars. Unrated. Contains some coarse language. 95 minutes.