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TAKE ME TO THE RIVER (2014) review

September 26, 2014

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written by: Rick Clark, Jerry Harrison, Julie Janata, Martin Shore & Zac Stanford
produced by: Marin Shore, Cody Dickinson, Brett Leonard, John Beug, Lawrence Mitchell & Dan Sameha
directed by: Martin Shore
rating: unrated
runtime: 95 min.
U.S. release date: September 12, 2014 & September 26, 2014 (limited)

 

There’s been a handful of recent music documentaries focusing on a variety of subjects: bands most people have never heard of (“A Band Called Death”), nostalgic music recorded in a particular studio (“Sound City”) and geographic locations known for producing some amazing music (“Muscle Shoals”). Those movies satisfied in-the-know fans by delivering respectful, introspective and entertaining films and 2.) introducing those unfamiliar viewers to great American music. Any musician from those documentaries will admit that the music from the Mississippi Delta, be it blues, soul or country, has been highly influential to musicians and performers of all ages for decades. “Take Me to the River” celebrates the music of that area as well as the rich history of music from Memphis, featuring legends pairing up with some young(er) blood.

The film has immense respect and evident joy for the music, yet it often interrupts the fascinating performances to make room for ineffective studio chatter. Maybe that’s because “Take Me to the River” is directed by record producer Martin Shore, who shows up here and there throughout the picture and is more than happy to guide us through the studio or get us behind sound boards. Although it’s great to see these musicians hang out and interact, what we want more of is to see these award-winning performers play their hit songs.

Bringing together the elders of Memphis with the young hip-hop and rap artists is an ambitious feat, Shore, making his directorial debut (he also co-produced with Cody Dickinson, of The North Mississippi All-Stars), does a decent job matching up performers from different generations. His directing though is not that entertaining. His camera is just kind of there, meandering in the studio or interviewing R&B artists, in between erratic editing. It’s okay if you’re fine being a fly on the wall, but don’t expect any recognizable filmmaking style out of this doc.

 

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The goal here is one of reunion and collaboration, by way of a feature-length party that combines the old with the new. Dave Grohl did something similar with “Sound City”, a livelier, more energetic documentary, but Shore is all about paying tribute and bringing dormant talent back into the studio to reminisce and deliver new takes on old favorites.

If you’re a fan of the music that came out of Stax Records and the Memphis Sound, you’ll enjoy “Take Me to the River” regardless of its flaws and want to introduce the film to others. Some elements of the film falter, like Terrance Howard (who knows a thing or two about Memphis after staring in “Hustle & Flow”) popping up every now and then as narrator (even strumming guitar here and there), but I would’ve preferred that Shore use more of Howard or cut him out entirely. Whenever he appeared, I forget that he was there to be some sort of guide for us. It’s as if Shore sent out invitations and there wound up being no RSVPs.

The highlight of “Take Me to the River” is seeing these match-ups take place, not all of them work that well, but one can still appreciate the effort. Still, there’s no getting around how awkward some of these pairings are. There’s “Supposed to Be” performed by Booker T. with Al Kapone (backed by The North Mississippi All-Stars), Otis Clay with Lil’ P-Nut (who could be Clay’s great-grandson and comes off somewhere between precocious and annoying) play “Trying to Live My Life Without You” and Bobby Bland and Yo Gotti on “Ain’t No Sunshine” – my attention focused on the veterans, finding the younger performers forgettable and uninteresting.

 

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It’s great to see more prominent figures like Charlie Musselwhite and Mavis Staples, but “Take Me to the River” thankfully introduced me to individuals I knew nothing about before. Individuals who had a hand in some of my all-time favorite songs.

Listening to the fascinating stories of the craftsmen behind such recognizable songs is a welcome education. We learn about record producer Willie Mitchell, who had his hand in promoting hundreds of artists and find out the many challenges he endured, especially during the Civil Rights movement. I also got a kick out of Charles “Skip” Pitts (he’s the guy who played the “wah-wah” on the theme song to “Shaft”), who contently sat down in the studio initially, watching all his old friends come in. This guy has quite a history though. Starting in his late teens, he played with Wilson Pickett and Sam & Dave and eventually joined the Isley Brothers (creating “It’s Your Thing”, one of my favorites).

Sadly, the exuberant Pitts died in 2012, something that Shore brings to our attention with on-screen text, stating that this was his last performance before his death. He’s not the only one too, which makes this film unintentionally quite poignant.

“Take Me to the River” also touches on how the music from Memphis played a prominent role for social change, but was also hit hard by the assassination of MLK. Again, something interesting, something I knew nothing about. The film closes with an all-star jam that includes a (thankfully) low-key Snoop Dog, but as it ended I found myself wishing Shore had let the music speak for itself, instead of editing many of the songs down to snippets. It would’ve been more respectful and more memorable.

 

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RATING: **1/2

 

 

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