It wouldn't have been a bad idea to open this concert movie with the short bonus feature on the opening of the Stax Museum Of American Soul Music in Memphis, rather than tucking it away among the extras. The mini-documentary covers how the Stax label's legacy was not well-served by the city of Memphis for a long time until, after a lot of effort, a museum was opened on the same block where the old Stax studio had been, finally making up for the indignity of having a vacant lot left where musical history was once made.
The concert on this disc was a reunion of original artists (and a few odd friends) celebrating the opening of the museum in 2003. Had it all happened earlier, maybe more of the original Stax artists might have been available, but at least they did it while Isaac Hayes was still with us. This is not the place to find definitive performances of classic songs. For that, check out this thrilling footage from 1967, courtesy of the mighty KrustelKram blog.
The great moments include: Eddie Floyd, Jean Knight, and Percy Sledge putting everything they have into their big hits; Isaac Hayes looking dead cool, if slightly frail, as he sings and conducts the Theme From Shaft (it's great to watch his gestures as he acts out every little orchestral detail in the song's epic intro); Al Green (not a Stax artist, but he was from Memphis and Al Jackson played on his records, so close enough) blissing out as he delivers "Let's Stay Together" and "Love And Happiness" and letting us know he can still hit those high notes; and the righteously maternal Mavis Staples, commanding the stage on "Respect Yourself" and "I'll Take You There".
Less awesome: an OK blues jam from Little Milton and Jimmie Vaughan; Rance Allen wailing out a gospel number where he testifies that he's never been to Paris, India, Switzerland, or New Orleans, but he doesn't care because he's going to Heaven (sorry, just can't get behind that attitude); Solomon Burke, still full of warmth and stage presence but not doing any of his own material. Instead, he duets with Mack Rice on one of my least favorite Wilson Pickett songs, "Mustang Sally", which goes ON AND ON AND ON, then lends his commanding voice to a heartfelt take on Otis Redding's "Try A Little Tenderness" that ends with him looking skyward, raising his walking stick and proclaiming, "I love you, Otis." That was a nice moment.
Strange but interesting and sweet: The Bar-Kays ripping through "Soul Finger" as Chuck D delivers a potent, laudatory rap and somebody, possibly the Bar-Kays' lead singer, imitates Flavor Flav's trademark "Yeeeeeeeeeaaaaah boyeeeeee" yells. Just plain strange: Michael McDonald standing in for Otis on "Dock Of The Bay" and, with Carla Thomas, standing in for Sam and Dave (where the hell was Sam Moore? He should have been there) on "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby". And yes, Stax was a wonderful example of integration and color-blind creativity, and McDonald has always had a passable soul voice, but come on, the Doobie Brothers guy?* Was he the best choice for this? Sigh. Oh well, it could have been worse and Michael Bolton could have shown up instead. On the other hand, if Arthur Conley had been available instead (sadly he passed on in Europe that very year) that would have really been something.
The three surviving members of Booker T & the MGs tear into an extravagant run-through of "Green Onions". When you've been as snappy, tasteful and economical as the MGs were through their career as both session musicians and instrumental stars, you have earned the right to showboat a little, and they do. But it's Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper we're talking about, so even their self-indulgent soloing comes out immaculate and crafty. I definitely could've sat through two or three more numbers by just them.
Overall, it's a nice concert and a fine tribute; I agree somewhat with some of the Netflix reviewers that it felt a bit like a public TV pledge drive feature, dull moments and all, but the value of the event is more than the actual performances: it is the joy of seeing these folks back together and being honored for their achievements while they are still alive. The bonus features are not to be missed either; I felt like there's the seed of a proper, comprehensive documentary on the history of Southern soul in these scant but intriguing interview clips with Mavis Staples, Isaac Hayes, Steve Cropper, Solomon Burke, and more. Perhaps a movie version of Peter Guralnik's Sweet Soul Music? How about a five-volume DVD set like the Beatles' Anthology? This is our cultural history, the dramatis personae are dying one by one, let's do it right, shall we? I'd buy one.
*George Clinton said it best back in the 70s: "It was cooool...but can you imagine Doobie in yo' funk?" I don't even know what that line means, but it never fails to crack me up.