Memphis has long been one of America's greatest cities for music; it's hard to imagine what the history of blues, jazz, soul, gospel, R&B, or rock would be without the input of the many legendary musicians who came out of Memphis over the years, from Rufus Thomas to Alex Chilton. Even if you narrowed Memphis' role in popular music to the output of the Stax Records studio and Royal Recording Studios (the home of the Hi Records Rhythm Section), you would still have a mighty legacy to contend with, and filmmaker Martin Shore sets out to honor the past and present of Memphis music in his documentary Take Me to the River. In part, the film documents a series of sessions held at the Royal Studios where a number of legendary Memphis musicians recorded alongside a younger generation of Southern artists, and while the idea is fundamentally sound, the execution doesn't always work judging from the film's soundtrack album. The groove of classic Memphis soul is easygoing but unrelenting, but hip-hop usually demands a harder and more rigid set of beats, so when Bobby "Blue" Bland, Otis Clay, and Booker T. Jones are paired up with rappers like Yo Gotti, P-Nut, or Al Kapone, the effect is jarring as the tracks shift gear from singing to rhyming. When the matchups between singers and rappers do work, it's usually a matter of attitude; Bobby Rush's cocky, high-spirited raunch is a fine match for Frayser Boy's verses, and Snoop Dogg's smooth-as-silk flow shows respect for William Bell's heartbroken wail. The best moments on Take Me to the River belong to Mavis Staples, who sings two numbers with the North Mississippi Allstars in which they play up a storm and she sounds like the glorious force of nature she truly is; in addition, the Stax Music Academy, a group of youngsters steeped in classic Memphis soul, show the city still can groove hard as they back William Bell on "Knock on Wood." Take Me to the River shows that the giants of Memphis soul can still shake the earth (though Bobby "Blue" Bland, Teenie Hodges, and Charles "Skip" Pitts passed on between the recording and release of these sessions), but the new grooves don't always blend easily with the old grooves.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming