Some jam sessions start awkwardly, as the participants feel each other out, find a common groove and then make it happen. They lose it again, find it, and so on. That’s what happens in “Take Me to the River,” a well-intended, overly rosy, ultimately moving mash-up of old-time R&B musicians — many of them alumni from the recently resuscitated pioneering Stax Records — and au-courant hip-hop artists. They have come together for a passing of the torch and a merging of generations in an epic hoe-down at another Memphis icon, Royal Studios. A bold and worthy experiment, and if there is a secret ingredient that can make it work, it’s not first-time director Martin Shore.
He hasn’t learned the basic lesson of music documentaries demonstrated in Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz”: Resist the urge to schmooze (only Scorsese can get away with it, and then only barely).
He also has trouble getting started. After actor Terrence Howard delivers a bombastic explanation of the project, Shore follows up with a bombastic introduction of his own, followed by the musicians meeting, greeting, reuniting, hugging, whooping it up, and praising racial harmony. By the time they pair pre-teen Lil’ P-Nut with a bemused Otis Clay on a rendition of “Tryin’ to Live My Life Without You,” it seems as though the show has been taken to the river and drowned.
But it gets better. It turns a corner when one of the old-timers puts down today’s musicians for relying on technology rather than talent, and rapper Frayser Boy (nee Cedric Coleman) meekly mentions that he won an Oscar for the “Hustle & Flow” song, “It’s Hard out Here for a Pimp.” He bounces back to hold his own with Bobby Rush on “Push and Pull.” The film peaks again when Bobby “Blue” Bland pairs up with Yo Gotti on a mournful, elegant “Ain’t No Sunshine,” sung over a montage of such somber images as the memorial at the site where Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968.
Such moments, along with the film’s rich sampling of archival footage, overcome the forced cheeriness and the vaguely narcissistic presence of Shore and Howard. The subtitled epigraphs commemorating old masters who are no longer around suggests another reason to watch this movie. Flawed as it is, “River” reminds us where all the great music came from.