My name is Susan and I love music documentaries. Surprisingly, though, I’m not a music buff. I don’t subscribe to Rolling Stone or have an eclectic collection of vinyl. I don’t even subscribe to a music streaming service. (Gasp!) I may seem like an unlikely fan of this genre, but what I desperately love about music docs is that we, the audience, become privy to the conception of art. We see the passion, the hard work, and the process, which to me, is often more interesting than the final product. From 20 Feet From Stardom to The Wrecking Crew to The Winding Stream, we are introduced to the backstory of history-making music. We see the raw talent stripped of pretention and production. Take Me To The River, continues this tradition with a heartwarming and heartbreaking celebration of some of Memphis’ musical greats.
Take Me To the River (TMTTR) was the brainchild of Luther and Cody Dickinson, sons of the late musician Jim Dickinson, and director Martin Shore, as a way to capture the stories of legendary, but aging, Memphis musicians. The original intent was to record an album that would pair the artists of Memphis’ heyday with today’s hip-hop artists and film the process. What they got was so much more, and there’s really no way that this blog can capture the spirit or scope of the film. In fact, there’s so much touched upon in this movie, from music, to race relations, to studio history, that it could easily have been made into a multi-part series, much like “The History of the Eagles.”
As background, there were a handful of recording studios in Memphis in the 60s and 70’s: Stax, Sun, Royal, and Hi, to name a few. While much of this movie is filmed at Royal Studios, founded by Willie Mitchell and now headed by recent Grammy winner (Uptown Funk was recorded here), Boo Mitchell, the famous Stax Recording Studio gets the star treatment as far as story. By all accounts, Stax was color-blind, in a city filled with racial strife. “We didn’t see color when we walked through these doors,” and “We didn’t care about sex or gender,” are frequent descriptions of the studio culture. The white founders, siblings Estelle Axton and Jim Stewart, created a space where they let the music speak for itself. As artist William Bell recalls, “It was a musical oasis in the middle of a ghetto desert.” At its prime, Stax was a direct competitor to Motown, but sadly fell victim to racially driven politics after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
But in this moment, as we watch the pure joy on the faces of these musicians as they reconnect with each other, we forget the discrimination they faced outside of the studios. With huge smiles, they recount their experiences of collaborating in the face of adversity. They readily offer advice (such as “Stop sampling and create something original”) to their young counterparts, who in turn, show genuine admiration and appreciation for the chance to perform with these legends. This film is like having a front row seat to a musical Master Class turned jam session.
My favorite scene in the movie, and what I think the filmmakers were trying to capture, is where singer Bobby Bland, now in a wheelchair and visibly moved by this opportunity to be back in the studio, overhears the young Lil’ P-Nut (who was probably 8 at the time) rehearsing some lyrics. He calls the young artist over and gives P-Nut some advice on singing from his diaphragm. The image is priceless.
TMTTR is a love letter to Memphis music. Several of the artists profiled have passed away since the completion of filming, and for at least two, this was their last session. What a gift the filmmakers gave to them…to be surrounded by people who love you, doing what you love, near the end of your life. The music and stories captured in the process is “Take Me to the River’s” gift to us.