Take Me to the River (Shout! Factory, NR)

If there’s an overriding theme to Take Me to the River, it’s that all good music is good.


Nashville has bestowed upon itself the title of “Music City, U.S.A.,” but you could make a strong case that another Tennessee city has, at least, a competing claim to that designation. That city would be Memphis, home to Stax Records, Sun Studio, and the legendary Beale Street immortalized in W.C. Handy’s “Beale Street Blues.” It was in Memphis that the rich mix of musical cultures in the city gave rise to the rockabilly hits of legends like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, and the city also gave rise to the “Memphis soul” sound popularized by performers lie Otis Redding and the Staples Singers (the title refers to the song of the same name by Al Green, released by the Memphis-based Hi Records label).

Take Me to the River, a documentary directed by Martin Shore (a musician who toured with the likes of Bo Diddley and Albert Collins, and has more recently worked in the sound department for several films), is a celebration of the musical culture of Memphis. It’s still a place where different types of music mix, a fact underlined by the inclusion of rappers (most notably Snoop Dog and the prodigy Lil’ P-Nut) alongside stalwarts of the old guard including Mavis Staples, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and Booker T. Jones (frontman of Booker T. & the M.G.s). Young musicians from the Stax Music Academy, an educational program for middle and high school students in Memphis, also perform in the film, providing a perfect example of musical sharing across generations.

If there’s an overriding theme to Take Me to the River, it’s that all good music is good. Labels like “rap” and “soul” may be useful in marketing music (in the old days of record stores, that was how they knew where to display a given album), but there’s no reason that the people making the music have to be overly concerned about maintaining such distinctions. In fact, the richest, most interesting music often comes from the collision and mixing of two or more traditions or styles, and this film celebrates that kind of sharing and collaboration.

You get to hear a lot of music while watching in Take Me to the River, often in long cuts, so the film avoids one of my chief complaints regarding some music documentaries—too much talk, not enough music. Directors and producers take note—listening to people talking about music is seldom as interesting as listening to the music itself. The film also includes many interviews and lots of footage of the various musicians working in the studio while recording an album, also titled Take Me to the River, the profits of which will go to help support music education in Memphis. Terence Howard’s narration helps place the music and its performers in context, and he also displays some legitimate chops on guitar.

Extras on the disc include an interview with Snoop Dogg and William Bell, a session video feasturing the Bar-Kays, 8Ball, and MJG, and an interview with Al Bell about the song “I’ll Take You There.” | Sarah Boslaugh


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