Take Me to the River: SXSW Review

Less a musical history or performance film than a sometimes-fun hangout.

Terrence Howard narrates a doc about a meeting of music stars in storied Memphis studios.

AUSTIN – A making-of doc in which soul-music legends team with upstarts for sessions in history-rich studios, Martin Shore's Take Me to the River has a certain amount of built-in appeal for music fans. While it rode that appeal to an audience award in SXSW's 24 Beats per Second category, the doc will disappoint non-fest viewers who expect something as rich as last year's Muscle Shoals or the old SXSW highlight Standing in the Shadows of Motown, which showcase other places famous for soul. Both Memphis and the legendary Stax label (which gets more attention here than peers like Hi and Sun) merit deeper big-screen examination.

Shore and his collaborators do, however, manage to get some of the final recordings of bona-fide trailblazers, including guitarist Hubert Sumlin, wah-wah king Charles "Skip" Pitts and singer Bobby "Blue" Bland. Each shares the screen and the mic with one or two new Memphis artists -- most of them rappers who are adding verses to re-worked classic tunes -- and the interactions brim with an appropriate level of elder-worship. On rare and enjoyable occasions, tips are exchanged: Watch Bland coach the preteen Lil P-Nut on his vocal technique, for instance.

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More healthy legends get their due, from William Bell -- fawned over in long gotta-know-our-history scenes by Snoop Dogg -- and the ebullient Mavis Staples, who records her own multi-track backing vocals in the film's most vibrant musical moment. (She's working with Luther Dickinson, who, with brother Cody, is one of the project's instigators.)

Narrator Terrence Howard, when not recording a song of his own, hosts sometimes stiff interstitial material. More an assortment of biographical tidbits and scene-setting, this stuff is a long way from the history of Memphis music most fans will wish for; even when the film digs into a topic, as with a section about the downfall of Stax, the talk is too vague for us to understand what happened.

Solid information takes a distant back seat to scenes of artists chumming around before and after the recording light goes on. We see far more bear hugs than guitar solos, hear "we have to record together again" more often than "baby, please come home." There's a good deal of pleasure to draw from some of these bonding moments, especially among vets who haven't seen each other for years, but not enough to justify overshadowing the movie's other elements.

Production Company: Stone Capital Films, LLC

Director: Martin Shore

Screenwriters: martin Shore, Jerry Harrison, Zac Stanford

Producers: Martin Shore, Cody Dickinson, Dan Sameha, John Beug, Brett Leonard

Executive producers: Jerry Harrison, Lawrence "Boo" Mitchell

Director of photography: Nathan Black

Music: Cody Dickinson

Editors: Maxx Gilman, Julie Janata

No rating, 98 minutes