In the Memphis music documentary "Take Me to the River," which arrives Friday in Chicago, generations sometimes uneasily merge in the gray area between soul and rap, the past and the future. The tension is played out in tight smiles and raised eyebrows. Veteran soul singers sometimes ooze skepticism when meeting their would-be collaborators from the world of hip-hop.
"We took some heat for including rap," says the movie's copdroducer, Cody Dickinson, drummer in the North Mississippi Allstars. The blues-rock band's Mississippi hill-country studio about an hour outside Memphis hosted some of the recording sessions, which included collaborations between the Allstars and Mavis Staples, William Bell and Snoop Dogg and Bobby "Blue" Bland and Yo Gotti.
"There were people who were not interested in being involved for that reason. But for me, it was a natural progression. I grew up playing blues and rock 'n' roll, but also worked in hip-hop. I've played guitar for Yo Gotti, 8Ball and MJG. To me, freestyling is like jazz, it's lyrical improvisation. I also see serious parallels between the suggestive lyrics in blues and gangsta rap, the connections between what Robert Johnson was singing about and someone like Snoop Dogg. It was a natural thing. When I was able to get together people like Bobby 'Blue' Bland and Yo Gotti, interesting things happened. When we showed the movie last week in Memphis, (longtime Stax Records executive) Deanie (Parker) said it opened her eyes to rap music. We've opened a dialogue. There is a conversation there that clearly needed to be had."
When those connections across genre and generation occur in the movie, the documentary goes beyond rehashing history to making it. In one of the movie's most moving scenes, soul great Bland, who sang with B.B. King on Memphis' famed Beale Street during the '50s, rolls into a recording studio in his wheelchair and gives an impromptu singing lesson to wide-eyed Benjamin Flores Jr., aka 12-year-old rapper Lil' P-Nut. Yo Gotti joins the singer on a melancholy version of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine," which plays out as eulogy of sorts to Martin Luther King, whose life and legacy were central to the evolution of Memphis soul, and to Bland himself, who would die in 2013, shortly after completing his scenes in the movie.
Dickinson says he and director Martin Shore envisioned the "Take Me to the River" movie and soundtrack as a living history of Memphis music, an idea that gained urgency after his father, Jim Dickinson, who had worked with everyone from local blues and soul giants to the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, died in 2009.
"Right after I lost my father, Boo (producer Boo Mitchell) lost his dad," Memphis soul icon Willie Mitchell, Dickinson says. "It was cathartic for us, a healing process for me, to work on this movie. I understand now I was reeling from the loss of my father, and at the same time trying to make something positive out of it. Boo Mitchell and I became such good friends while making this movie. And at the same time, it's hard to watch, because we've lost so many of the people in the movie, and there are more we couldn't get to in time."
The Memphis greats who have died in recent years include not only stars such as Bland and Alex Chilton, but behind-the-scenes session perennials such as guitarists Mabon "Teenie" Hodges and Charles "Skip" Pitts, who are featured in the movie.
"You can't step on the horns, the vocals," Pitts tells a young guitar-player at a recording session captured in the documentary. "You have to learn how to play the groove."
It's these little in-the-moment, how-to conversations that give texture to the oft-told tale of Memphis music and the bi-racial community it built through the civil rights era, only to nearly unravel in the aftermath of King's slaying in 1968. Stax Records, a Memphis institution, went bankrupt in the mid-'70s, but has returned in recent years with a vibrant museum celebrating the past and an academy dedicated to the future that tutors aspiring musicians.
Many of the "Take Me to the River" recording sessions are done off the cuff, with "head arrangements" worked out on the floor with all the musicians and singers collaborating – a reflection of how many of the sessions at Willie Mitchell's Royal Studios or at Stax worked to create by hits by Al Green or the Staple Singers.
"The people who came (to the cross-generational recording sessions in the movie), they came with force, with their heart, and their life stories," Dickinson says. "I learned in making the movie that if we find a cause that people believe in, anything is possible. If a Mississippi blues band can make a movie that wins awards and gets into theaters, I am here to tell you anything is possible."
Also worth seeing
Black Keys: In the long march from club act to arena headliners, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have expanded their garage-blues vocabulary in collaboration with co-producer Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, 8 p.m. Saturday-Sunday at the United Center, 1901 W. Madison, $45, $65, $85; ticketmaster.com
Robert Plant: Backed by the adventurous Sensational Space Shifters, the former Led Zeppelin singer explores new avenues of noise and solitude, 8 p.m. Thursday at the Riviera, 4746 N. Racine Ave., $76; jamusa.com
Fleetwood Mac: They’re getting the band back together again. Christine McVie rejoins the golden-era lineup with Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood, 8 p.m. Thursday and Oct. 3 at United Center, 1901 W. Madison, $49.50, $89.50, $129.50, $189.50; ticketmaster.com
Greg Kot co-hosts "Sound Opinions" at 8 p.m. Fridays and 11 a.m. Saturdays on WBEZ (FM-91.5).
When: Opens Friday
Where: Landmark's Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark St.
Tickets: $9-$11.50; landmarktheatres.com