There’s an earnest didacticism to Martin Shore’s directorial debut, Take Me to the River, a film that initially comes off as a primer on the Memphis sound and a making-of documentary for a genre-blending music project.
Shore and his fellow music producers pair veteran r&b, soul and blues musicians with younger performers, primarily rappers (like narrator and singer Terrence Howard, most have a connection to the Memphis-set Hustle & Flow). It’s not always smooth sailing, with musicians of the analog era gently chiding their digital counterparts over sampling and Auto-Tune. The cross-generational collaborations begin to click when musicians who found fame in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s recall the importance of mentors on their careers and demonstrate an eagerness to pass on their accumulated wisdom.
Guitarist Charles “Skip” Pitts, who became Wilson Pickett’s bandleader at 20 and developed his distinctive wah-wah style with Isaac Hayes, pulls aside a promising teenager for a raucous tutorial that includes sharing his secret to slippery slide guitar. Take Me to the River takes a while to find its groove and capture what Charlie Musselwhite calls “that secret, Southern, Memphis ingredient.”
The film’s extensive discussions about the importance of Stax Records never fully illustrate the company’s rise and fall, and other documentaries (Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Muscle Shoals) cover some of the material better. But when a reverential Snoop Dogg joins William Bell on “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” with students from the Stax Music Academy, it’s a remarkable glimpse of Soulville’s past meeting its future.