Can music reflect landscape? Can a spiritual terrain seep into the soul of a people through music? These are some of the questions asked in the documentary, “Muscle Shoals,” a must-see documentary for any rock n’ roll history connoisseur. There’s not just something in the water in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a small town by the Tennessee River. To hear it told by the doc and its many legendary music figure testimonials (Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones and many more), Alabama’s seminal music town not only has soul, funk, rhythm, blues and spiritual pathos coursing through its veins, it’s permeated deep in the soil, running through the water and flowing in the air. And while the sentiment seems a little hokey and precious (especially when delivered by U2‘s overly earnest, semi-pretentious Bono who lays on the mythologizing rather typically thick), over the course of 110 minutes “Muscle Shoals” delivers a litany of evidence that’s difficult to argue with.
Locales tied to the birthplace of crucial music movements is well documented. Detroit gave birth to Motown (and years later techno), Chicago had the Blues, Nashville bore all types of country, Düsseldorf spawned motorik, Nigeria begat afrofunk, London spat out punk, Liverpool gave us the Beatles, et al., but Muscle Shoals never really got its due in the same way some of these cities did. Directed by Greg Camalier (an associate producer on David Wain’s vignettes comedy “The Ten” of all things), the eponymous doc strives to right this wrong and explores the intangible energy and spirit that has illuminated so many influential and significant records in the history of soul, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll.
What’s engaging about “Muscle Shoals,” other than depicting an outstanding undersung corner of rock ‘n’ roll history, is the way it organically unveils its stories and the three key figures behind it: the shamanistic quality of Muscle Shoals itself, super producer Rick Hall and perhaps one of the most underrated and unknown backing bands in rock history: The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section aka The Swampers. These stories weave back and forth, breaking off into their own direction and then circle back again all the while documenting some mythical moments in the history of 20th century music.
In recent years, there’s been celebration of incomparable, but practically unknown backing bands finally getting their due; the ace up the sleeve secret ingredient behind a now classic sound. Motown had The Funk Brothers (see the doc “Standing In The Shadows Of Motown“); Stax Records had Booker T. And The M.G.s; The Wrecking Crew helped Phil Spector, Brian Wilson and many SoCal acts of the ’60s; MFSB (Mother Father Sister Brother) drove the sound of Philadelphia’s famous Sigma Sound Studios (Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, The O’Jays, The Stylistics, The Spinners); and the list goes on and on. And perhaps while known to rock crit heads and aficionados, The Swampers have remained generally unknown to the public (and have been not inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame yet like some of these other groups).
Perhaps the most amusing anecdote about The Swampers is how every band wanted to cut records with these funky, soulful backup players that everyone assumed was black. Much to their surprise they were a collection of skinny white guys “that looked like they worked in the supermarket,” Bono explained (hearing Aretha Franklin’s surprise at how “greasy” and funky these white guys were is amusing too). Evidently the energy of Muscle Shoals was color blind to whom it passed on the power of the groove. Fascinating is the racial tension in the South that seems to have mostly side-stepped Muscle Shoals and the many African-American artists who recorded there. Perhaps the irony of white men being instrumental to a black sound having something to do with it.
“Muscle Shoals” is compelling just beyond rock history anecdotes as well and this critical town also had its moments of conflict that make for good yarns. The movie chronicles the hard luck story of Rick Hall who grew up dirt poor, lost a brother and mother at a young age, but strove for perfection as a way to find his place in the world. Iconic music figure Atlantic Records‘ Jerry Wexler centers into the tale as well as he quickly picked up on Muscle Shoals’ sound and brought down artists like Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett to do some of their best work (and acrimoniously left the studio as well). And then of course perhaps the central conflict is The Swampers—Hall’s FAME studios house band—breaking off to begin their own rival studio which also begat countless number of hits (over 75 gold and platinum records were recorded between the two).
Featuring testimonials by Bono, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Traffic‘s Steve Winwood, Clarence Carter, Duane Allman, Aretha Franklin, Alicia Keys and many many more, there’s absolutely no shortage of famous rock musicians willing to sing the praises of the Muscle Shoals sound, The Swampers and all the top-shelf records produced in Rick Hall’s FAME studio and subsequently The Swampers’ own digs. The list of distinguished albums recorded in both studios is an unbelievably impressive body of music, but in particular, songs cut in Hall’s FAME studios are some all-time greats—Percy Sledge‘s first hit, “When A Man Loves A Woman,” Aretha Franklin’s breakthrough Atlantic record I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, The Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” and a few key cuts off The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers including “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar.” Most recently The Black Keys recorded their Grammy-winning Brothers album in Muscle Shoals.
In total, the two studios’ output amounts to an incredible list of artists, including Wilson Pickett, Etta James, The Allman Brothers (Rick Hall unfortunately passed on their “too rock” sound), Lynyrd Skynyrd (who name checked The Swampers and Muscle Shoals in “Sweet Home Alabama”), Bob Dylan (cuts off Slow Train Coming), Paul Simon, Kris Kristofferson, Bobby Womack, Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker, John Prine, Boz Scaggs, The Staple Singers, Santana, Linda Ronstadt, Leon Russell, Levon helm, Bob Seger, etc., etc. While “Muscle Shoals” and its presentation doesn’t reinvent the wheel—this is your standard talking heads documentary—the treasure trove of stills and found footage makes for a compelling and effortlessly watchable film that even the casual music fan should find themselves totally engrossed in. [B+]
“Muscle Shoals” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and Magnolia Pictures have acquired the documentary for distribution in U.S. for sometime later in 2013.
“Low Movie (How To Quit Smoking)”
They’re Mormons from Duluth, Minneapolis. Two-thirds of the central band are a married couple with a child they sometimes take on the road with them. They play a hypnotic “slowcore” sound that’s part narcotic heroin-like stupor mixed with whispers and part beautiful elegiac hymns. Their singer/guitarist/founder/principal songwriter Alan Sparkhawk suffered a nervous breakdown a few years ago that went very public when he started writing confused and worrisome entries on the band’s website. The indie rock band Low—also featuring drummer/founder/wife Mimi Parker and bassist Steve Garrington—have had a fascinating story behind their quiet, hushed and sometimes cathartic sound. Plugging away at the indie music scene for almost three decades in a van, they’ve also been rather resilient where others with families may have just called it a day.
However, the problem with “Low Movie (How To Quit Smoking)” is that you’ll find none of that context in the “movie.” In fact, you’ll find none at all. Intro’d by the band and their longtime friend and audio/visual companion Philip Harder who has shot most of their videos and included them in a short film or two that also included their music, ‘How To Quit Smoking’ is more of a celebration of Low and Harder than it is anything else. That is to say, the “movie” is a stitched-together collection of all of the Hanly-directed Low videos and the aforementioned shorts. Some of the songs are cut short, but they flow chronologically from past to present. And while that’s a nice little document to look back on for the band and Harder, it’s a shame there isn’t any real texture to this super interesting and often undervalued band. One can understand the need for privacy, but even putting Low in some sort of musical context for others could have been grand. For instance, even the stingy-to-give-out-praise Steve Albini (who produced, err, recorded a few of their records) could surely attest. That’s simply not happening here, so ‘How To Quit Smoking’ feels like a major missed opportunity and probably even a letdown for hardcore Low fans (this writer would consider himself one, minus the last few years) who have already seen half this material. [C]
“Apocalypse: A Bill Callahan Tour Document”
Once known as Smog, then (Smog) and now just going by his plain ol’ birth name, Bill Callahan is another fascinating figure in indie rock who is arguably one of its most inscrutable and undervalued figures. Sure, Callahan is admired, has a cult following and has been making records ever since the early 1990s, but one wonders if this enigmatic figure will be looked back on in 20 years as the Bob Dylan or Scott Walker of his day that you never really knew.
Famously taciturn and unrevealing in interviews, Callahan Q&A interviews are amusing, if only for the amount of bolded black text (the question) compared to the paucity of regular, unformatted text (the answer). This is to say, Callahan is usually reluctant to reveal much of anything, let alone spell out his intentions of a song or album. Callahan’s indie rock career has been a remarkably intriguing and engaging one beginning with a super lo-fi, that expanded into an idiosyncratic indie rock style, all the while grounded by his deep basso profondo singing voice. Depressing on the surface, the gray sheen of his music belie the wit, humor and poetry underneath. And yet, his peculiar, not-of-the-zeitgeist sound never quite captured the attention of media and audiences like it did with other ’90s indie rock touchstones like Pavement, Yo La Tengo and Cat Power (and yet his eclectic body of work is just as important). Featuring wry and sometimes amusingly perverse lyrics (see “Dress Sexy At My Funeral”), Callahan’s always been a poetic storyteller, but in recent years his music has turned somewhat Dylan-seque: long folksy songs eschewing verse/chorus/verse structures sprawl along the course of one story for up to seven minutes or longer. A humanistic political tinge has also popped up in his work as well.
Those looking for insight into the mysteries of what makes Mr. Callahan tick won’t feel as stymied with “Apocalypse: A Bill Callahan Tour Document” as say “Low Movie” (see above), and there aren’t many major revelations either. In fact, Callahan, as you might guess, doesn’t have a lot to say in ‘Apocalypse,’ though when he does deign to speak, he opens up much more than in an average interview. Callahan addresses the encroaching nature of the politics in his songs (see the song, “America,” and much of the Apocalypse album from 2011) by saying sometimes you just wake up to the country you live in a little more as you get older and also vaguely reveals (as he does in the past) that each of his albums is based on a character with a certain point of view. But of course, if you’re looking for a play by play on what that character is and what he or she is thinking on each album, not only have you come to the wrong documentary, but you’ve got the wrong artist.
Subtitled “A Bill Callahan Tour Document,” the Hanly Banks-directed film lets Callahan and his music do the biggest percentage of the talking in the movie—“I think when I’m performing live, it’s really just the realest me there is” Callahan says. And while it does often feel like standard-issue tour documentary—shots of musicians staring out the windows of touring vans at the landscape depicting their solitude—thematically much of it quietly ties into Callahan’s expanding consciousness. And there’s something to be said about its direct simplicity too. Sometimes Callahan on stage with his lyrics front and center delivers a clarity and insight that can occasionally feel like something illuminating or profound into the psyche of a quiet, but vital artist. [B]