Documentary Focuses on the Astonishing Musical Story Behind “Muscle Shoals”
Whenever I hear someone refer to the “Muscle Shoals sound”, I have visions of long-haired white boys in 1970s fashions playing slide guitar solos on songs like Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird” or the Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man”. To me, it has always been the birthplace of Southern rock. In the recently-released documentary, Muscle Shoals, now playing in theaters and on VOD, director Greg Camalier takes viewers on a star-studded exploration of the career of music producer Rick Hall, founder of FAME Studios, and introduces us to the talented musicians who played on dozens, even hundreds, of hits from the 1960s to the present.
Utilizing a combination of modern-day interviews and vintage film footage from actual recording sessions, this film takes us on a trip that begins in the segregated south where black and white musicians ignored the prevailing social norms and congregated at Rick Hall’s studio to cut some of the most famous R&B songs ever written like “Land of a 1000 Dances”, “Mustang Sally”, and “I’ll Take You There”. We hear firsthand from Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Clarence Carter and Aretha Franklin who all graced the cramped recording facilities in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, at the same time George Wallace was standing in the doorway of the University of Alabama proclaiming that no black students would ever walk its halls.
Wilson Pickett tells of hearing the soulful sounds coming out of Rick Hall’s studio and arriving in Muscle Shoals expecting to find a room full of African American musicians. Instead, he arrives at the regional airport to find a white record producer and four local white musicians known as “The Swampers”. They looked like four white dudes who worked at the local supermarket, Pickett says. But, their ability to channel the soul of R&B onto a vinyl record was soon heard on radios nationwide.
When an orderly at a local hospital named Percy Sledge finds his way to FAME studios to record “When a Man Loves a Woman”, Rick Hall lands on the national stage. He forms a creative partnership with Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records, and in no time, a song produced in a small recording studio in a town of less than 8,000 people is the Number One song in the world. Then the floodgates open, and a steady flow of A-List musical talent begins to make the pilgrimage to Muscle Shoals to find that intangible ingredient that their music needs.
Even the Rolling Stones arrive from England to attempt to catch inspirational lightening in a bottle. In modern interviews, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger speak in almost mystical terms of tapping into the creative energy found only in a small studio near the banks of the Tennessee River. After a few days of recording with Rick Hall, the Stones had “Wild Horses”, “Brown Sugar” and several other classic tracks in the can. Keith calls recording in Muscle Shoals one of the finest creative experiences of his life.
There is a brief fascinating visual near the end of Muscle Shoals where the album covers of every hit recording that came out of FAME studios flashes across the screen. The audience would be hard-pressed to think of a famous American recording artist who DIDN’T record in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
In addition to a star-studded musical history, the film is a rich exploration of the creative process and that intangible “something” that every musician is perpetually chasing, that sound in his or her head that comes to life when the right blend of talent is assembled. It’s also an in-depth look at Rick Hall and the driven men like him who refuse to give up on their quest for musical perfection even if it costs them business associates and friendships along the way. Despite all of his success, Hall seems haunted by his personal and professional past, as if the dream he has realized is not quite as great as the one he spent decades seeking.
Muscle Shoals also takes a long look at the rivalries that can form in the music business. Hall and Wexler ultimately have a creative falling out over a recording session with Aretha Franklin, and the Atlantic executive swears that he’ll never work with Hall again. The Swampers tire of toiling in anonymity on some of the biggest hit records in history and strike out to build a rival studio across town. R&B gives way to a wave of Southern rockers, and Rick Hall is forced to change with the times or perish as he competes with his cross-town rivals.
For music lovers and amateur musicians, Muscle Shoals is an absolute must-see. In its tale of a man who turns a small broken-down building into a recording empire, it will also appeal to anyone who has ever chased a dream.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.