Geographically speaking, everyone knows that “Music City” is Nashville, Tennessee. People sometimes forget, though, that “Soulsville, U.S.A.” is only a couple hundred miles to the southwest. Memphis, Tennessee is the birthplace of some of the greatest blues and soul records ever made, and the documentary Take Me To The River attempts to celebrate some of the amazing artists involved in making the city such a special place, and it succeeds on all accounts.
Created by director Martin Shore and North Mississippi Allstars drummer Cody Dickinson, the film shows the recording process for an album designed to bring some of the Memphis greats together and work with younger artists to keep the story going. Through clips with legends like Skip Pitts, William Bell, and Charlie Musselwhite, we get an oral history of the music scene in Memphis from the 40’s and 50’s on. A good chunk of the story focuses on the rise of Stax Records and its eventual systematic destruction. Mostly, though, it tells the tale of a circle of musicians who didn’t care about race or gender-all that mattered is if you can play. And if you can, baby you’re in.
I was lucky enough to see a couple of the people they hosted play live before they passed: I saw Bobby “Blue” Bland with BB King about 15 years ago. He was a showman if ever there was one. Even at his advanced at (I think he was probably in his 70s then) he was still having a ball, moving well on stage and flirting with the ladies in the audience. Hubert Sumlin I saw play as part of Clapton’s Crossroads Festival maybe 8 years ago, and he was a consummate professional. Nothing too flashy, just instilling every song with passion and beauty.
The studio portions are my favorite bits of the movie. A lot of time is spent on the songs they chose to record, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I could watch a whole movie of just Charlie Musselwhite and Skip Pitts sitting around the studio reminiscing. At one point Musselwhite says of his move from Memphis to Chicago “The south side of Chicago is a bit like north Memphis” because so many of the Chicago blues guys (Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Rogers) got their start in the soul city.
The performances are all top-notch. There’s an early scene where Otis Clay is recording a tune with the young (like, elementary schooler) rapper Lil P-Nut. Not only does Clay sound as good as ever, but Lil P-Nut absolutely crushes his verse. It’s enough to make you feel like even when all these legends are gone, the spirit of Memphis soul will live on forever.
Shore and Dickinson pair up some interesting artists: Bobby Bland does “Ain’t No Sunshine” with rapper Yo Gotti, Academy Award-winner Frayser Boy of Three Six Mafia teams up with Bobby Rush for Rufus Thomas’s “Push and Pull,” and a group of teens from the Stax Academy get to play on a session with Snoop Dogg and William Bell doing his “I Forgot To Be Your Lover.” Snoop sounds more invested in his verse on this song than he has in anything else he’s done in a decade, and it’s interesting to hear him talk about knowing the history of music and understanding where different sounds came from.
If you haven’t before, take the next opportunity you have to see someone like Bobby Rush play live. It’s a completely different experience than seeing anyone in today’s generation of musicians. They have a way of connecting with an audience, sharing a feeling of great joy and deep sorrow, through music that can’t be taught. Even in their golden years (and, let’s be honest, platinum years in some cases) they have more energy on stage and care more about what they’re doing than most twenty-somethings ever will.
Take Me To The River was named Best Music Film at this years SxSw film festival, and it is surely one you will not want to miss. The films Chicago premiere is Sunday May 4th at Logan Theatre. Go to CIMM Fests’s website for single-ticket and festival passes info.