Take Me to the River
2014, PG, 95 min. Directed by Martin Shore.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Sept. 26, 2014
Everybody gets caught up in the lovefest Take Me to the River, the scruffy documentary about the recording of a new album featuring three generations of musical talent from the Mississippi River Delta. For the legendary Memphis bluesmen and soul singers who recorded at the famous Stax Records, like Booker T. Jones and William Bell, it’s old home week, a sweet reunion of old-timers who made vinyl history back in the Sixties and Seventies while helping break the color barrier on the Billboard charts. For the rap and hip-hop artists who join this endeavor, such as Snoop Dogg and Yo Gotti, it’s a chance to pay their respects to torchbearers who paved the way, and to learn about making music in the studio the old-fashioned way. For everyone else involved, it’s a privilege to both witness and participate in this once-in-a-lifetime convergence of yesterday and today, particularly for Luther Dickinson, who appears on the verge of wetting his pants at the prospect of jamming with the celebrated Mavis Staples on a song written by her Pops. If it weren’t for the occasional whiff of self-congratulation, the infectious, feel-good euphoria in Take Me to the River might be classified as a controlled substance.
Actor Terrence Howard serves as host of the film, though his role seems an afterthought, added to give the documentary some semblance of form and to offer a recognizable face to movie audiences. (The less said about Howard’s recording session in the film the better. It ain’t up to snuff.) Others making appearances in the film fare much better. The wow pairing of the precocious preteen Lil’ P-Nut and septuagenarian Otis Clay on “Trying to Live My Life Without You” will knock your socks off. (“Lil’ P-Nut is killing it!” Clay exclaims at one point.) The late Bobby Blue Bland’s rendition of “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone” haunts like the original version by Bill Withers, perhaps even more so knowing the Beale Street legend passed away not long after cutting the recording. And the life force that is Mavis Staples is simply a thing to behold. Though Take Me to the River also offers up some civil rights history lessons between recordings, it feels like a mishmash effort overall, more a home movie than a theatrical release. That’s fine. If you approach it on those terms, you can’t help but feel the love, too.