AMW Film Fest Review: Take Me To The River (USA, 2015) is a soaring celebration of blues, rap and soul music

If American music has a heart and soul then you would find it nestled between Memphis and the Mississippi Delta. The documentary film, Take Me To The River realises this and pays homage to the soul men and women that created those passionate and influential hits for the likes of Stax Records and their ilk. This film is an absolute joy that shows the passing of the baton between some legendary and contemporary artists who work together to make beautiful music.

This film is directed by music producer Martin Shore and is hosted by Terrence Howard. It also tackles a number of different subjects. The core story is that a group of artists from a magical period in history are doing what they do best- heading back into the studio. But instead of a straight retelling or recording of the hits, they’ve been partnered up with some young guns from the contemporary music scene in order to reclaim the tunes. The result is something that is infectiously fun because there is so much love, warmth, optimism, enthusiasm and respect in the rooms shown here.

The roll call of this film is long and varied. The old guard includes but is not limited to: William Bell, Mavis Staples, Otis Clay, Charlie Musselwhite, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Booker T Jones and Bobby Rush. The “young” ones are represented by Snoop Dogg, Lil’ P-Nut, Frayser Boy, Yo Gotti, Cody and Luther Dickinson and the Stax Music Academy. What is particularly touching is that for three of the older artists this recording session would be among their last, because a couple of them passed away during the making of this film. This also means that some parts of this documentary also feel like a well-meaning epitaph.

At other points this film feels like a hagiography as there is a lot of back-slapping, name-dropping and nostalgia. We learn the real meaning behind the hit song performed by Sam & Dave, “Hold On, I’m Comin.’” There are also some eye-opening moments when the civil rights battle and the harassment and racial profiling experienced by these artists during the period of segregation is described. It is rather rough stuff but it’s also interesting to hear an anecdote about how some of these musicians got their own back towards the head of a diner who refused them service.

There are times where it’s worth the price of admission alone to hear these past masters work their magic. Whether it’s Staples belting out a tune written by Pops or Bland’s spine-tingling take on Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.” The only quibble is that these are excerpts when they should have been complete songs. It was also a shame that this film failed to get BB King involved in the process. That said, there are still some great moments though, particularly when Bland proves himself a natural teacher when he guides Lil’ P-Nut through the different approaches to singing (the Baptist method apparently involves crying and the honey-soaked Methodist one is where diction and pronunciation rule.)

This film covers a lot of ground but it is by no means exhaustive. The result is something that occasionally feels a little uneven and all-over-the-shop. But as a raw love letter to music from the Mississippi and Memphis regions, it is one that should have fans lapping up and enjoying every minute of its joyful celebration. Take Me To The River is an exciting film with some amazing and engaging talent who prove that their singing and playing together soars because their rivers are deep and their mountains high.

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Take Me To The River had its Australian Premiere this week as part of the Australians Music Week Film Festival.