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Director Martin Shore’s new documentary Take Me to the River had its world premiere in Austin, Texas, Tuesday night. A musical celebration and Memphis history lesson filled with legendary artists new and old, it makes an ideal programming pick for the synergistic South by Southwest. With quality production values and plenty of talking heads, this scattershot documentary focuses on the legacy of Southern music by putting generations of musicians together in the recording studio and embracing the magical spirit of Memphis that still endures.
Rapper and entrepreneur Snoop Dogg was in the house for the premiere, and he joined director Shore onstage to say a few words following the screening. “I cried and I laughed when I watched this film,” said Snoop. “The world needs to know all about this music — and it’s not just music, it’s a lifestyle.”
Actor Terrence Howard serves as both a narrator and a performer in the film, and the movie pays attention to matters of race as well as the legacy of iconic recording studios like Stax and Hi Records. Reviving the history of Memphis by pairing elder musicians with young rap and rock artists is occasionally exciting, and it’s the presence of veterans like Bobby Bland, Mavis Staples and William Bell that provide the high points.
Besides the novelty of older soul singers working with rappers like Snoop, Al Kapone, Lil P-Nut and Frayser Boy, the film gives props to the producers, songwriters and session musicians who worked with the likes of Al Green, Isaac Hayes and Sam & Dave. Players like Booker T. Jones and Charles “Skip” Pitts help explain the scene’s formative years and the ascendance of Stax, as well as the sad decline of the Memphis music industry following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Since the filming of this documentary, some of the artists have passed away, including Bland, Pitts and bluesman Hubert Sumlin, making this an even more important testimonial. And in keeping with SXSW’s own traditions, the Take Me to the River gang will attend a “Memphis Means Music” panel led by director Shore on Friday, March 14. The panel will include North Mississippi Allstar Cody Dickinson, former Stax label-head Al Bell, writer Robert Gordon and producer Lawrence Mitchell. Of course, there will also be a free live show at Austin’s Butler Park on March 15, featuring Snoop, Jones, Bell and bluesman Charlie Musselwhite.
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