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Take Me to the River (2014)

Hep Hop

There's a touching message at the heart of Take Me to the River, director Martin Shore's documentary about old-school blues legends collaborating with young hip-hop artists on a tribute album to Memphis' Stax Records: the Southern sound that defined American music may have been born out of struggle in the African-American community, but has become a multi-racial, multi-generational language of harmony. This is at odds with the movie's other message, which is that white people ruin everything.

To be clear: Take Me to the River is neither a racist movie nor a polemic against systemic oppression. But in addition to muddying stories of political and police brutality in the 1950s and 60s, Shore frequently halts his film's beautiful black rhythms by interjecting flat, self-important narration from himself and actor-turned-sorta-musician Terrence Howard. The inclusion of rap artists on this sacred musical ground is also jarring: in one corner, you have the late, great Charles "Skip" Pitts joyously talking about Isaac Hayes and the wah wah pedal (which Pitts pioneered); in the other corner stands Frayser Boy, a mumble-mouthed rapper who scrolls through lyrics on his cell phone while hunched over the mic. This isn't a white supremacist's ideal in action, per se, but one need barely squint to see the disheartening contrast between the lively, soul-searching, and very talented musicians of old, and the Pro Tools-weaned Thesaurus Rappers with interchangeable voices and "ideas".

My stomach turned when Howard stepped into the studio. Dressed to the nines in a white suit and sunglasses, he stuck out like a sore, untalented thumb in a room full of justifiably self-assured and accomplished, t-shirt-and-ball-cap-wearing geniuses. The ego pooled around Howard, creating a danger to everyone involved, and his singing was as garish as his tackiness.

Since I'm on a racial tangent (fair or not), Take Me to the River offers up only one white guy who isn't an utterly embarrassing cheeseball. We get the technician who only stops giggling and fist-pumping when he's not vomiting sycophancy all over blues icons, and North Mississippi AllStars' guitarist Luther Dickinson-- a cross between the dude who played Jim Morrison in Wayne's World 2 and every cartoon hippie committed to film. I don't begrudge anyone leading a knee-slapping life of zonked-out dorkiness, but until the cool, calm, collected (and, again, conspicuously talented) Charlie Musselwhite showed up, I thought I was watching a Christopher Guest spoof.

Despite the numerous stretches of discomfort, you really should see Take Me to the River. It may be clogged with rocks and logs, but the bubbling momentum of live performances from Mavis Staples, William Bell, and Bobby "Blue" Bland make the journey more than worth it. I just wish Shore and company had figured out what kind of movie they'd wanted to make: Is this an over-long record promo? Or is it an examination of Memphis music and its place in America's Civil Rights history?*

The film's saving grace comes in the last act, when high school students from the Stax Museum and Music Academy jam with our blues heroes. It was so touching to see Pitts encourage and advise young drummers and guitarists. Better yet, he offered to work with some of them in the future, just as he'd been given a leg up early on. Even this moment, though, was soured by Snoop Dogg, who popped up with some insightful and moving commentary on generational appreciation--before ruining Bell's "I Forgot to Be Your Lover"; with a Thesaurus Rap interlude he wrote on the spot, and while possibly high ("I did this in, like, six minutes". No shit).

Take Me to the River is a film at odds with itself. Its rhythmic, beating artist's heart can't quite drown out the desire to be both commercial and semi-structured. It's too glossy and fan-boyish to qualify as a kind of concert film--and too disjointed to recommend as a history lesson. Still, I can think of few other recent movies that really capture the bond of great artists reminiscing while creating, and which grant the audience such fine, fly-on-the-wall access. Just try to ignore that sound-board stooge with the weird bowl-mullet and incessant-nodding disorder.

*There are some wonderful stories here, and unsettling footage set to Martin Luther King's final speech, but the narrative is choppy, incomplete, and loses out to the in-studio stuff.

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