Just as music is an integral part of Nashville's fabric and sensibility, the same certainly is true for Memphis. Both cities have an extensive and impressive legacy, with music often serving to break down racial and social barriers. The diverse and remarkable impact of Memphis music gets gloriously reaffirmed in Martin Shore's documentary Take Me to the River, the main event in the 45th annual Nashville Film Festival's African-American Showcase at Walk of Fame Park 8 p.m. April 21.
Prior to the screening, several Memphis music luminaries will perform in concert on the music stage; those scheduled to appear at the screening include Bobby Rush, Boo Mitchell, William Bell, and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-Stars. But the main attraction is the movie, which won the audience award this year at South by Southwest and has its Tennessee premiere at NaFF. It's a broad cinematic opus that's equal parts historical portrait, socio-political discourse, behind-the-scenes dissection of a session, and multi-generational celebration of achievement. The film also cites Memphis' contributions to the blues, R&B/soul, and the Civil Rights Movement, with an occasional nod to its jazz and gospel heritage as well.
Shore, a record producer whose mentor was the great producer/multi-instrumentalist Jim Dickinson, pays tribute to Dickinson's spirit and contributions, spotlighting his contributions to seminal sessions by Ry Cooder, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. Actor Terrence Howard serves as narrator, while later demonstrating his musical and rap facility. The film utilizes interviews with such mainstays as David Porter, Booker T. Jones, Charles "Skip" Pitts, Charlie Musselwhite, Mavis Staples, David Porter, the Hodges brothers, Marvell Thomas and others who provide the backstories behind seminal hits like "Hold On, I'm Coming" and "In the Midnight Hour."
The participants recall the challenges faced by black and white musicians during the Jim Crow era, even as Pitts, Jones and others consistently repeat the mantra they were interested in music rather than skin color or gender. They let racism neither affect their relationships with each other nor halt their productivity — a resilience that resonates in their recollections and memories. They recall the days of Hi, Stax and American, the musical immortals who traveled to Memphis and made fabulous recordings, and the bonds they forged despite sometimes lacking even the support of the city they were putting on the map.
Sadly, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King dealt a shattering blow to the racial harmony that had been created via music, and to a musical infrastructure that was once among the most successful and profitable in the nation. A secondary thematic thread follows the production of a long-anticipated project that connects various performers across idiomatic, age and stylistic lines. It puts blues vocalists, soul wailers and hip-hop denizens in the same studio to make contemporary musical magic, while paying homage to the classic sounds of the past.
It's instructive to watch contemporary players joining legendary figures for fresh collaborations. Howlin' Wolf's longtime running mate Hubert Sumlin plays alongside Eric Gales, while Snoop Dogg talks songwriting and politics with William Bell. Kid rapper Lil P-Nut shows veterans his prowess, and Luther and Cody Dickinson demonstrate their facility and knowledge of blues history, as well as their ability to integrate it into an individual sound influenced by other styles from soul to rock and hip-hop. Take Me to the River gives Memphis musicians and their songs the praise and recognition they deserve for their invaluable contributions to this nation's cultural heritage.Take Me to the River also screens 6:45 p.m. April 20 at Green Hills.