'Take Me to the River', Please

by Jedd Beaudoin

9 February 2016

This promising documentary about the past and future of Memphis and the Mississippi Delta music scene is overcrowded with too many captains who steer the boat aground.
Soul and blues singer William Bell in Take Me to the River 
cover art

Take Me to the River

Director: Martin Shore
Cast: Cody Dickinson, Luther Dickinson, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Snoop Dogg, Mavis Staples

US DVD: 5 Feb 2016

It’s undeniable that Memphis is one of the great music cities of the world and equally undeniable that the Mississippi Delta and that great city stand as the cradle of American musical civilization. From hip-hop to soul and back to rock ‘n’ roll, this is the area responsible for producing at least half your favorite records. So, making an album that puts together some of the old guard with members of the new guard makes sense. Hey, why not film all that too? No brainer. Slam dunk. That kind of thing. Should make audiences stand up and either say hell yeah or hallelujah. Right?

Alas, from the earliest frames of this film, which attempts to do much of what’s described above and more, we get the sense that we’re in trouble. What’s the problem? Is it tone or intent or a little bit of both?

The elder musicians who appear here are hard to beat: Otis Rush, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Mavis Staples, Charlie Musselwhite, Bobby Rush and the North Mississippi All-Stars plus Yo Gotti, Lil P-Nut and, curiously, Terrence Howard. (More on him below.) Those assembled (not all at once, of course) are going to make an album that captures the spirit of the place and the spirit of music that oozes from the region.

There’s an attitude to that music, we learn; it’s something about being yourself and being yourself is tantamount to being a success. Something like that. It’s one of the little nuggets that blows by faster than tumbleweeds while we wait to see how this whole thing’ll come together.

So, while we’re waiting we get archival clips that throw bits and bobs of musical and social history our way. New interviews with David Porter and other legends appear. There’s a recording session here and a recording session there and some of the music ain’t bad. But the film never finds its feet because it’s trying to do too many things at once.

Telling the story of the music that came out of Memphis in the age of Royal Studios and Stax Records, the golden age of soul and capturing why that was important to the larger American/world culture and the soul (no pun intended) of music is one thing. Doing that and taking us into the studio with a cast of brilliant musicians while throwing context-creating sequences with the aforementioned Terrence Howard is another.

Howard’s appearances are interspersed in such a haphazard way that it feels like he’s an unwelcome guest after a while. One begins to wonder, “What’s he doing here, again?” Indeed, the normally charismatic actor looks and sounds surprisingly uncomfortable throughout. After a while, his delivery and presence have the charisma of a paid spokesperson on a late night infomercial rather than that of a man who may very well be one of our greatest actors.

Still, there are enjoyable moments. Cody Dickinson’s enthusiasm for the music he makes here (in particular a session with Musselwhite) is palpable as he and brother Luther maintain a childlike enthusiasm for their art and lives. Both seem to have an insatiable hunger for culture that is undeniably infectious.

But unless one knows virtually everything that ever came out of the scene, it’s hard to keep up with who’s who and what’s what and why some of the footage looks like it was imported from YouTube and worse—why we should ultimately care. Unlike the better music documentaries of this kind, such as Muscle Shoals and The Wrecking Crew, there’s no central voice that steps in, gives us a sense of chronology or explains what’s going on. In fact, there are probably three or four separate films here, including one on Stax, that desperately needs to be made.

Sure, Staples lights up the screen to the point that you think it might combust, but she can’t make the whole picture. Neither can the under-explored stories of what it was like to be in Memphis during the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. That moment is worthy of exploration in a much larger context because it marks, it turns out, the day Memphis fell, if you will. So we’re left with the feeling that there’s both not enough and all too much going in this film all at once.

In the end it’s simply a case of too many cooks in the kitchen, no one willing to take charge and all the usual clichés that turn up when something with so much promise fails with such painful beauty. (There are six producers listed and four executive producers, including Howard.)

This Blu-Ray/DVD release of the film features an interview with executive producer Snoop Dogg and the legendary William Bell, an interview with Al Bell on the writing of the song “I’ll Take You There”, and an unseen session video featuring the Bar-Kays, 8Ball, and MJG. The Bells are remarkably affable figures but the unseen footage with Bark-Kays et al. could have just as easily remain unseen for all time.

It’s a pity that so many tremendous talents and such impeccable music was done so little service by a film that never finds its focus and, as a result, does a disservice to the great figures captured in its frames. If you’re able, book a trip down to the Delta, down to Memphis. Take a trip through the whole South and find the history for yourself or maybe hook up with a good guide. Sure, it’ll cost you more than a copy of this movie but the rewards, the dividends, the payoff, the thrill of really breathing it in will be so much more rewarding.

Take Me to the River

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