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 are 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+]
This is a reprint of our review from the Film Society Of Lincoln Center’s Sound + Vision series earlier this year.