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

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