2013 saw a slew of musical documentaries: Sound City (dir. Dave Grohl), Muscle Shoals (dir. Greg Camalier) and 20 Feet From Stardom (dir. Morgan Neville). The latter of the three went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary and revive the career of Darelene Love — who sang her excitement at the ceremony when the movie won — but the first two, Sound City and Muscle Shoals, are notable because of their exploration of the location as well as the music. Now defunct, Sound City was about the studio in Van Nuys, CA where iconic records like Rick Springfield’s “Jesse’s Girl”, Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors” and Nirvana’s “Nevermind” were recorded. Muscle Shoals covered FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, AL where Lynyrd Skynrd, The Rolling Stones and Aretha Franklin all recorded. Both of these docs identify the unique sound that came out of the studio – for Sound City is was the drums and at Muscle Shoals it was the “Swamper Sound” — as well as exploring the intrinsic value of a location. Filmmaker Werner Herzog had a phrase for it; he called it “the voodoo of location”.
A new movie to explore that “voodoo” is Take Me to the River, a documentary from record producer Martin Shore, about the legendary Memphis record label, Stax Records. Like Grohl with Sound City, Shore cross-markets his documentary by producing a tribute album while documenting the artists and the music that made Stax famous. The album combines the surviving greats of Stax Records (Booker T. Jones, Charles ‘Skip’ Pitts, Bobby Bland and more) and the up and coming hip-hop community (Al Kapone, Yo Gotti, Lil P-Nut). When I say up and coming, I mean up and coming, as Lil P-Nut is twelve-years-old and damn nears steals the show from everyone else.
Hosted by Terrence Howard, himself a musician, Take Me to the River is a collection of musical performances and interviews that give the history of Stax Records. Founded in Memphis, TN (on the Mississippi River) in 1967, Stax Records nickname is Soulsville, USA and it is a fitting one. Stax offered the world The Staple Sisters, Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Sam and Dave, etc. The only label that rivaled Stax in their heyday, was Motown Records in Detroit.
While primarily a showcase of musical talents, Take Me to the River touches briefly on the history of Memphis and how race relations played apart of music at the time. Particularly the riots that following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In an interesting example of role-reversal, the black musicians had to personally escort the white musicians and vouch for their safety during the riots.
While race played a huge part in the creation and success of Stax Records, it does not play a significant role in Take Me to the River. Musician and producers Cody and Luther Dickinson (sons of record producer Jim Dickinson) are white, as was the founder of Stax Records, Jim Stewart, but all of them are accepted into the black fold. The musicians and the Dickinson Brothers claim that Stax is “color-blind”, but I don’t think that is 100% accurate. They are not blind to color; it just doesn’t matter to them.
Take Me to the River has its detraction, it is longer than it needs to be and it drags in places. American history is occasionally added to the story of musicians, not to clarify or add anything, but probably because Shore felt an obligation to add it. It isn’t enough to derail the project. As long as you’ve got music and musicians this good, who cares about history? Let’s just get to the next song!
Take Me to the River also functions as a Swan Song for many of these musicians. Bobby Bland, Teenie Hodges, Charles Pitts and Hubert Sumlin passed away upon completion of the documentary. How nice of Shore to get down their final performance for all to see.