(2013) Musical Documentary (Magnolia) Aretha Franklin, Bono, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Rick Hall, Percy Sledge, Candi Staton, Clarence Carter, Donna Godchaux, Jimmy Cliff, Ed King, Roger Hawkins, David Hood, Clayton Ivey, Jesse Boyce, Spooner Oldham, Dan Penn, Alicia Keys, Steve Winwood, Jimmy Johnson, John Paul White. Directed by Greg “Freddy” Camalier
Most aficionados of great music will know the name of Muscle Shoals. A small Alabama town on the Tennessee River, it would become the site for the recording of some of the greatest songs in the modern pop music era. FAME studios, founded by Rick Hall back in the late 1950s above the City Drug Store, but relocated the studio to its current location in 1962 where the first hit, Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On” was recorded.
From then on, some of the most recognized songs of the rock era were recorded there including Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1,000 Dances,” and Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman.” The house band, made up of session musicians Barry Beckett on keyboards, Roger Hawkins on drums, David Hood on bass, Jimmy Johnson on guitars and Spooner Oldham on organ were known as the Swampers and created a funk and country laced sound that became signature of the Muscle Shoals sound. Many artists, including Paul Simon (who recorded his seminal Here Comes Rhymin’ Simon there) were surprised to find out that the musicians were white.
In 1969 the Swampers decided to become their own bosses and founded their own studio across town. Muscle Shoals Sound would become home to Lynyrd Skynyrd who recorded some of their seminal work there (the Swampers are name-checked in the iconic Skynyrd tune “Sweet Home Alabama”) as well as other class rock mainstays including the Rolling Stones who recorded “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” there. Hall was understandably upset, seeing the defection as a betrayal as he had just signed a big deal with Capital. Muscle Shoals on the other hand had made a deal with Jerry Wexler at Atlantic and this drove a further wedge between Wexler and Hall who’d already had a falling out. Hall however persevered, bringing country artists like Mac Davis and Jerry Reed and continues to bring in some of the best rock, R&B and soul artists in the world to his studio which thrives to this day. Meanwhile Muscle Shoals Sound has moved to a larger facility and the new owners of the building they were originally in have plans to turn it into a music museum.
First-time director Camalier intersperses interviews with beautiful shots of the Tennessee River, the rural area around Muscle Shoals and the quaint small town environment of the town itself. Most of the interview subjects refer to a “magic” that permeates the air around Muscle Shoals – well, the white ones do at any rate.
During the ’60s black artists weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms. Hawkins, a white man, talks about the looks he’d get from locals when he’d take black artists to the local luncheonette on a meal break. One of the film’s great faults is that this is glossed over to a large extent; we hear more about the white artists’ impression of the situation than with black artists like Carter and Sledge. I would have liked to hear more of their viewpoint of a situation in which they had complete artistic freedom and respect in the recording studio but once outside it became second class citizens. I got the sense however that things in Muscle Shoals weren’t as bad as they were elsewhere.
Much of the film really concentrates on the glory days of the area in the 60s and 70s. We do see Alicia Keys recording a song at FAME but largely there is little about either studio past 1980. The interviews sometimes overlap on the same ground and I would have liked a little more examination a to why a small town in Alabama was able to have such a major impact on popular music – at the end of the day however I think that there are a whole lot of intangibles having to do with the right place, the right time and the right people.
The soundtrack is pretty incredible as you might expect and some of the stories that the artists tell are worth the price of admission alone (Keith Richards asserts, for example, that he wrote most of “Wild Horses” in the bathroom moments before recording it). While this isn’t the most informative documentary you’re ever going to see, it is nonetheless essential viewing for anyone who loves rock, soul and country.
REASONS TO GO: Great music. Gives a real sense of time and place and its importance in making musical history.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t really spend much time in the present. Can be repetitive.
FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly foul language, smoking, drug content, a snippet of partial nudity and some adult situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio founded by the Swampers was located in an old casket factory.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/10/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
FINAL RATING: 7/10