Uneven documentary on Stax studio hits the right notes

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Wednesday, September 24, 2014 7:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

There’s been a steady drumbeat of music-history documentaries this century, paying proper homage to the great players of pop music. These movies are invariably tuneful and nostalgic.

Actually, there have been so many of these — “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” “Muscle Shoals,” the recent Oscar winners “Searching for Sugar Man” and “Twenty Feet from Stardom” — that you might suspect the genre is a little played out.

But no. Even a wobbly offering like “Take Me to the River” contains irresistible moments of musical pleasure.

This one’s about the legendary Memphis recording studio/label Stax, or more precisely about the studio’s sound. Much of the lively history of the label is omitted, with the focus on the rhythm &blues groove the place became famous for.

Stax’s brand included Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MGs, and Isaac Hayes. We hear anecdotes of the old days, including a possibly questionable tale of how lyricist David Porter came up with the title of a soon-to-be-classic Sam &Dave song by shouting from the bathroom, “Hold on, I’m coming.”

But most of the film is arranged around new sessions, in which veteran musicians connected with Stax are paired with younger types. The old-school crew includes Mavis Staples, Booker T. Jones, and Bobby “Blue” Bland.

Irascible guitarist Charles “Skip” Pitts is a particular scene-stealer. He’s the guy who perfected the funky wah-wah sound on guitar, which he played — to the eternal glory of American culture — on Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning theme from “Shaft.”

The highest-profile of the younger generation isn’t so young anymore, but Snoop Dogg sings the praises of the Stax sound. With disarming sincerity, he talks about his mother playing Stax records when he was young, and how he never dreamed he’d be recording with these musical pioneers.

The format has its limitations; it’s nice to watch the new tracks develop, but mostly it comes down to adding a rapper to a pre-existing tune. There are choice moments, though, such as famed blues harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite asking, “Can I show you how to do it?” as he picks up a guitar from a younger player and puts a little swamp twang in it.

Commentators, including narrator Terrence Howard, are quick to point to the racial mix at Stax, and the significance of the studio to Memphis. Stax was one of the biggest employers in Memphis during its heyday.

The movie’s a bit of a mess, and yet … everybody on screen is having such a good time, and the music is so catchy, it succeeds. There’s a lot of evidence here that musicians just flat-out have more fun than everybody else.

“Take Me to the River” (3 stars)

A wobbly documentary about the great Memphis record studio Stax, and its roster of soul musicians. The concept — take veteran players and pair them with younger musicians — doesn’t always work, but there are good anecdotes and plenty of fun.

Rating: PG, for language

Showing: Varsity theater

Talk to us

More in Life

Caption: A mom’s unpaid labor to her house each week: $300.
My house was clean three weeks ago. Sorry you missed it

Sticker-shock quotes from housecleaning businesses inform a mom just what her labor is worth.

Fine-tune your coping skills for when life gets difficult

Here are four ways to develop healthy ways to deal with the stress that inevitably comes our way.

Krakow’s main square offers a vibrant slice of modern Polish life — and it’s just steps away from a cheap and cheerful milk bar meal.
Poland’s milk bars dish up memories and cheap eats

You can eat well there for just $5, making them perhaps the best legacy of the communist era.

Trainline charges a $43 change fee after train was canceled

When Neale Gonsalves’ train trip from Stockport, England, to London is canceled, he rebooks on another train. But Trainline, his ticket agency, charges him a $43 ticket change fee. Is that allowed?

Ays Garcia in Village Theatre's production of "Cinderella," which closes Jan. 29 in Everett. (Angela Sterling)
Music, theater and more: What’s happening in Snohomish County

Village Theatre’s production of “Cinderella” closes Jan. 29 in Everett.

not for print
Fruit tree season is upon us. Choose wisely

Unlike growing veggies, fruit trees are a long-term investment, so make sure you start out on the right foot.

A snapping sound in her calf muscle sent her to urgent care. What happened next, involved a lot of sitting. (Jennifer Bardsley)
This injury changed me from a ‘human-doing’ to a ‘human-being’

A painful torn calf muscle doesn’t require surgery — just a LOT of rest. So pass the Advil and the TV remote.

The GPP for next Tuesday, January 24th is Galanthus elwesii, commonly called giant snowdrop, and the image credit goes to Richie Steffen.
Great Plant Pick: Giant snowdrops

This bulb flowers early — as in right now. It also rewards gardeners with a honey-like fragrance.

How do we teach our children to be mindful consumers?

A few ground rules, on screen time especially, will help adults raise kids with the capacity to amuse themselves.

Many of those who fought for Irish independence were held or executed in Kilmainham Gaol.
These are a few of Rick Steves’ favorite things to do in Dublin

Visiting Trinity College, Kilmainham Gaol and more in Ireland’s capital city.

With a hurricane on the way, are these tickets now worthless?

Char Collins has to cancel flights from Minneapolis to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, after a hurricane threatens her destination wedding. Will she have to throw away her airline tickets, or can she reuse them?

The 2023 Cadillac XT4 five-passenger compact luxury SUV is available in three different trim levels.
2023 Cadillac XT4 is handsome, roomy and agreeable on the road

The compact luxury SUV has two new paint colors and adds some driver assistance features as standard.