The latest documentary exploration of a particularly fertile region in the history of American music, in this case Memphis, “Take Me to the River” compensates for a lack of originality and depth with no shortage of joyful celebration. An inside job by director and record producer Martin Shore, the pic provides succinct overviews of the ’60s heyday of legendary soul music labels Stax and Hi Records structured around the main attraction: a series of sessions combining old-school artists with contemporary acts for the recording of a fresh compilation album. Without the star power of the recent, similarly themed “Muscle Shoals,” theatrical prospects appear negligible, but further fest play and tube exposure are a given.
One of the subjects describes the sound of Memphis soul as “real and genuine and straight from the heart,” which could also apply to Shore’s approach with the film. Staying primarily behind the scenes, Shore allows the hardworking session musicians and a few remaining stars to tell their own stories. The bigger the personality — say, seventysomething firecracker Mavis Staples or scratchy-voiced scene stealer Charles “Skip” Pitts — the more entertaining the tales. Part of the stated mission of the recording sessions and the film is “passing on musical magic,” a goal that feels all the more vital in light of how many participants passed away during or soon after production.
Intermittent hosting appearances by actor and musician Terrence Howard — who conducts a few interviews and sits in on one of the sessions — feel a bit awkward, but Shore otherwise does a fine job keeping the focus where it counts. The arrival of younger Memphis-born hip-hop acts, including preteen prodigy Lil P-Nut and “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” collaborator Frayser Boy, never overshadow the veterans. On the contrary, there’s something touching about the level of respect between the generations, never more pronounced than in Snoop Dogg’s camaraderie with Stax journeyman William Bell.
Although “Take Me To the River” (which cribs its title from an Al Green classic) touches on the civil rights movement and the record labels’ atypical racial unity in the deeply segregated South, the surface-deep history lessons can’t compete with the music. It’s far more revelatory to see the excitement Staples radiates in digging up the rock-n-gospel chestnut, “Wish I Had Answered,” and bear witness to her inimitable performance style.
While some sections of voiceover narration seemed incomplete on the print screened prior to the pic’s SXSW fest premiere, tech credits are generally solid, especially the topnotch sound work put into capturing the recording sessions with dynamite clarity.