Whether Talking Heads’ track of the same name makes an appearance in a feature that opens with the “special places” on earth is unknowable. There is a sense of the country’s roots and those that form the most important moments of the early days and beyond. Take Me to the River takes itself a little too seriously for a documentary that expects the Mississippi River to be the influence behind so many great albums. Having those acclaimed likes of Aretha Franklin and Johnny Cash appears in the same neutered slideshow as Kaiser Chiefs’ Only by the Night is a frankly embarrassing moment, but the river ties what the river ties. It does not tie this documentary together.
Martin Shore does his best to direct through a feature documenting the Memphis feel, with Terence Howard of all people, his hair coiffed and his lapel larger than Harry Hill’s, narrating through this with all the conviction he gave War Machine in Iron Man. He is fascinatingly serious and does his best to bring convincing arguments to the “musical utopia”, as he describes it. Shore hopes to bring the Memphis stars together, to reintroduce those people who turned tracks into gold, to give the roots of the early days to those carrying the torch now. And Howard. It is never quite explained what reason he has for being there, but there he is, brushing shoulders with Booker T. Jones, Snoop Dogg and the Stax Records alumni. He is vaguely convincing but his role is borderline useless.
He does well to keep out of the way when the recording starts though, the incredible scenes of Al Kapone and Jones working together, recording something new and special with a love for the olden days in mind. There is a heart and character to that which Take Me to the River can only display. It never manages to make that feel as though it is it’s own. Always looking in on what it hopes to be part of, the admirable consistency of using the recorded sessions as the backbone of the documentary makes sense. It does detract from the history though, with a slate of fade cuts trying to explain the Memphis music scene while also expecting everyone to have a massive knowledge of the hidden legends. Jim Dickinson is a name worth remembering from this documentary, that is for sure.
Take Me to the River has the massive issue of understanding the need for legacy and not leaving one of its own. The album it produces out of this piece is likely worth a listen so the contrasts of Memphis style can be heard. But with the cuts and consistency of featuring those throughout this Shore documentary, it is more than enough to hear those instrumental solos, the talking heads legends and those hoping to shine a light of love on Memphis. Fine enough, but it never quite sets the heart on fire. That would be an impossible task. Memphis music moved over so many genres and at least that integral fact is cemented here. Enough legends to push it to the finish line, but not enough power behind it to make a keen narrative thread for all the heartfelt moments.