Around the same time that Motown Records was doing its thing in the big city of Detroit, Stax records was recording and releasing music down south in Memphis. The output from these two labels represented the best of what American music had to offer, and continued well into the days of the British Invasion of the mid-sixties. Although Motown had more chart success and record sales, Stax had the attitude; the cool mix of blues, gospel, funk, and jazz that became a recognizable sound all its own. Director Martin Shore tells the Stax story, but not in the traditional way, in his new documentary Take Me to the River.
Take Me to the River isn’t just a historical recap of how Stax came to be. Of course, there’s some of that, covering the formation of the label, its significance in the civil rights movement, and its eventual closure. Through interviews and voiceover narration by Oscar nominee Terrence Howard (Hustle & Flow), Take Me to the River gets the audience up to speed on the background of the label and the scene, but the information is mostly used for contextual purposes. The real star of Take Me to the River is the music, and the artists who made (and continue to make) it.
What made the Memphis music scene of the Stax era so unique and exciting was the seemingly hodgepodge mix of musicians and influences that somehow worked itself into coherent music that not only sounded good, but belonged. This is the type of feeling that Martin Shore captures in Take Me to the River. Shore’s musical mentor, Jim Dickinson, was the owner/operator of Zebra Ranch studios until his death in 2009, and his sons, Luther and Cody, were instrumental in helping Shore put together the documentary. The filmmakers brought in legendary Memphis musicians and teamed them up with younger hip-hop artists to record new renditions of the songs. The sessions were captured on video for the film, and the results are incredible.
The first session shown in the film pairs Booker T. Jones from Stax Records house band Booker T. & the M.G.’s with rapper Al Kapone. The bar is set high from the start, as the collaboration is seamless, the two stars taking the lead while the Dickinson Boys’ band, The North Mississippi Allstars, back them up. Other notable team-ups include blues singer Otis Clay and rapper Lil’ P-Nut (who, at 12, steals the scene with his flawless verse), vocalist Bobby “Blue” Bland with hip-hopper Yo Gotti, and soul stylist William Bell and superstar Snoop Dogg (backed by student musicians from the Stax Music Academy). Even narrator Terrence Howard gets into the action, singing lead on a tune called “Walk Away” while being backed by the Hi Rhythm Section. The collaborations are exciting to watch come together, and the music that is created is impressive.
It’s not all work, though; there are many playful and humorous scenes in between the sessions. In one interview, guitarist Charles “Skip” Pitts tells the story of how David Porter wrote “Hold On, I’m Coming” (a hit for Sam & Dave) – Porter was in the bathroom, and co-writer Isaac Hayes called to him, to which Porter replied “Hold On, I’m Coming,” and the song wrote itself from there. In another scene, harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite is shown working out a song with the band, and takes the guitar away from the guitarist to show him how he wants it played. There’s also very touching scenes as well, such as when Skip Pitts tells the story of how his Stax family came through for him when he needed a kidney transplant. The Stax family vibe is a very apparent theme in Take Me to the River. One scene shows Mavis Staples sitting around a living room with the Dickinson boys, playing music, laughing, and reminiscing after having not seen each other in years – like a big family. The behind the scenes stuff is almost as much fun as the music. Almost, but not quite.
Early on in Take Me to the River, Cody Dickinson laments that they didn’t start making the film earlier, because many of their musical family and friends had died off in recent years. Indeed, it appears that Shore and Dickinson made their film just in time, as both Bobby “Blue” Bland and Skip Pitts died shortly after their sessions for the film. The title cards announcing their deaths are not presented so much with sadness as with respect, and the audience is fortunate to have been witness to these final creative sessions.
The musicians in Take Me to the River, whether they’re young or old, student or professional, make what they do look easy. The film has a similar concept and structure as Dave Grohl’s love letter to Sound City, but the style and effect are very different. While Sound City was fun to watch, with its interesting-yet-predictable collaborations, Take Me to the River is just awe-inspiring. For music lovers, it’s a must-see.