Film Review: Muscle Shoals

In the debut documentary of Greg &#8220;Freddy&#8221; Camalier, it&#8217;s a toss&#8212;up as to which is more magical&#8212;the physical place of <i>Muscle Shoals</i>, Alabama, or the music it produced.

Just as you were coming off your high from seeing Twenty Feet from Stardom, what you might call a discovery documentary about “girl” backup singers, and anticipating CBGB, the upcoming film about the now-defunct rock club on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, comes a film with perhaps even broader scope, more recognizable subject matter. It is Muscle Shoals, a movie with a title that may not be familiar to the uninitiated, though its “cast members”—Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge and Bono, to mention just some—are.

What is in the air that we are looking anew at the roots of R&B, and rock, and making some fascinating finds? It has to be more than nostalgia. And, of course, these featured interviewees don’t need the exposure. Mick Jagger explains it all in both Twenty Feet from Stardom and in this film.

Muscle Shoals is the first-time effort of Greg “Freddy” Camalier, who says he was inspired by driving past the tiny town in Alabama and deciding to turn around his car to take a peek at what it might be about the area that has created not just one but two legendary recording studios, forged a sound, and brought talent from far and wide to record there. The first, FAME Studios, was founded by mustachioed producer Rick Hall, the lynchpin for the film as well. Muscle Shoals details how his hardscrabble life motivated him to achieve his dream of a music empire. Key to his success was rounding up a group of talented local musicians who later called themselves The Swampers, country white boys who always amazed African-American performers by their very whiteness. (Even Paul Simon was surprised, saying originally he wanted to record there because he wanted to work with the black backup group.) For though George Wallace might have been raging on in the capital, the music they made together was pan-racial. Some of this we may have heard before, but not the bits about trying to take a lunch break together in non-integrated lunchrooms. And how a new “sound” was born when an African-American couldn’t get in, a white guy also boycotted, and the two of them during their lunch hour produced a new style.

Over the years, and with ins and some outs with Jerry Wexler and Atlantic Records, the fame of the place, and its special sound, grew. OK, great. But what really makes the movie special is the historical, live recording of the music, with some photos and footage from the personal files of Hall. Other archival material looks to be meticulously researched; the editor, Richard Lowe, finds a perfect place for it.

It’s also fascinating to watch the great musicians of the 1960s and ’70s (and today) trying to parse what exactly it is that makes Muscle Shoals such a special place. Steve Winwood asks the question at the movie’s start. Bono introduces the word alchemy. Jimmy Cliff asserts in a brief snippet that Muscle Shoals has a field of energy. It has to make you think how short-lived the Woodstock phenomenon was by comparison.

Muscle Shoals drops in the suggestion that the Tennessee River, which runs by the town, may contain a special spirit: a woman singer, recognized by American Indians of the region. At first this seems a bit head-trippy. But amazingly, this is similar to the conclusion that Bono, interviewed throughout the film, comes to. All great original music stems from being by a river, he reminds us, and creativity comes from the mud. He mentions the Mersey (the Liverpool sound).

All went in quest. “The Beatles beat us there by two weeks,” says Keith Richards, a bit regretfully, even from today’s vantage point. Duane Allman made his homage, even eventually taking up residence, and like Lynyrd Skynyrd, melded his sound with that of Muscle Shoals. Or maybe it’s the other way around. The point of origin, the emotional heart of the film, is the interview with Percy Sledge. His wailing sound is simply one he came up with in the cotton fields, he says, trying to leaven the spirit of the workers. A funny spin on this occurs when cocksure Wilson Pickett turns up toward the end of the movie. We see him visiting Muscle Shoals and recording there, but asking in a post-civil-rights, slightly angry way, after looking around for a bit, “Is that what I think it is? Cotton fields?”

Yet though this is a documentary about the history of a sound, it is tied together by the story of one man’s life. Some of the autobiographical bits Rick Hall speaks of may smack a bit too much of pop psychology. He says he was driven to succeed because he grew up so poor, living nearly like an animal; that his mother abandoned the family and became a hooker; his dad died under a truck; his wife was killed. And then the most recent wipeout: His beloved musicians, The Swampers, walked out on him and formed their own studio in town. Yet he asserts this kind of trouble, he calls it rejection, drives him on. It may seem a bit forced—and even sound like a country song—but it’s his life, and his high concept, really. And it threads the film together. Moreover, he let the filmmakers use material from the studio sessions, footage and photos, which give credibility and a “you were there” feel.

The high point of Muscle Shoals is Aretha Franklin recording at the studio. Though her talent had been recognized, music executives didn’t know what to do with her, how to market her. It was only when she went to Muscle Shoals that finally her true sound emerged, when she got “funky” with the help of the all-white backup band. She was sitting at the piano, one of the backup guys says today, noodling around, with the other musicians just practicing on their own, when suddenly the sound coalesced. As the backup guys, much older now today, define funk, it means unfinished, a not quite put-together product.

Ironically, though, we end in a studio session which does not seem or look funky, or even typically Alabaman. Alicia Keys, interviewed throughout, is the last performer we see recording in the studio. It’s a very produced shot, and seems out of keeping with a documentary in search of spiritual and creative roots, even if money isn’t a bad thing either. Also, though maybe it’s petty to observe about a movie bringing so much else to light, you would like to know where the name Muscle Shoals comes from. Since there was such an emphasis on, and shots of, the river, sometimes you start looking for the “mussels.”

Muscle Shoals uses standard talking-head-style techniques. This is just as well, since the music is so spectacular, the fame of the interviewees so overwhelming, the factoids so new and fresh, you don’t need any other fanciness.