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David Hirzel

Inside Stax and Memphis Music: “Take Me to the River” at the Rafael

By September 18, 2014No Comments

You can see the music emerge from the first riffs, watch it evolve into an elaborate tapestry woven from drum intros, rhythm riffs, bass lines into a foundation for some compelling vocals. You watch it happen live in the studio, or in Mavis Staples’ living room, and you get the sense that this is how it happens whether or not there is a camera in the room taking note of everything going on. And, believe, me, there is a lot going on.

Take Me to the River is one of those movies that has you dancing as you leave the theater for the street, still dancing to Ms. Staples powerful rendition of the gospel song “Wish I Had Answered.” A movie that lets you watch music being made, watch the color lines disappear into the music, watch seemingly unconscious creation arising from a collaboration of artists in the same room, and boy is that exciting. It’s not all about the music, though. This movie takes you into the heyday of  Stax Records recording studio in Memphis, the hope of Martin Luther King’s oratory and the tragedy of his assassination and the following riots that devastated the city. Stax was devastated too, fell into bankruptcy, and disappeared into an abandoned storefront on a graffiti-disgraced street. Co-owner Al Bell refused to have his enterprise subsumed into the vast wasteland of corporate music that followed.

But mostly it’s about the music. Today’s—live in the studio, some of it in the distinctly low-rent Royal studios in Memphis, with blankets thrown over frames and rolls of insulation hanging from the ceiling over the backup singers’ balcony. Yesterday’s—grainy live footage of these older musicians on stage fifty years ago, juxtaposed with today’s live footage of Booker T. Jones, Charlie Musselwhite. Charlie “Skip” Pitts, talking the creative process then and now. The real joy is watching that creative process across the generations—the youngest performer is Li’l P-Nut (age about ten at the filming)—working with Bobby “Blue” Bland in his last studio outing.

This movie is a must-see for every young person who dreams of a career in music and thinks it can be accomplished by rapping to drum-beats and samples. “If we keep sampling,” said singer Bobby Rush, “we’ll run out of things to sample.” It’s the live music that is exciting, but it’s the intimacy of this movie that makes it memorable.  For those of us coming of age in the 1960s, much of the soundtrack for those years came right out of Memphis, right out of Stax Records and in this movie you’ll hear it again, some of it made anew by the original performers.

Stax lives on today as a music academy training young people in the art of music creation. Seventy-five percent of the proceeds from your watching this movie go to the support the Stax Music Academy and other music-related charities.

Now playing at your local art-house movie theater, but not for long. Don’t wait for the DVD; this is one for the big screen, and more importantly the theatrical sound system that has it all over the one in your living room. And in this case, it’s all about the music.

Through September 25, 2014 at the Rafael Theater in San Rafael CA

415.454.5813 Main Office or 415.454.1222 Info-Line for Showtimes

Review by David Hirzel.