Muscle Shoals, for the uninitiated, ranks up there with Detroit and Memphis when it comes to the best soul music produced in the 60s and 70s. For a town with a only a couple of thousand inhabitants, in comparison to the metropolises of the latter two, this is mightily impressive.
The history of Muscle Shoals as a hotspot for music began in the late 50s when Rick Hall set up the FAME recording studio. With a backing band of local musicians, he started recording singers and groups, and eventually the hits started coming. Percy Sledge recorded ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ in its confines, and when Jerry Wexler of Atlantic heard about the FAME sound, he bought Aretha Franklin over to start record what would become her breakthrough album I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. Eventually, due to splits and differences, the backing band, now known as The Swampers, were convinced by Wexler to start their own studio in Muscle Shoals, which became a rival to Hall’s. The 70s saw the two studios tread different paths, FAME going more towards pop and country (and it has to be said, not very good pop and country), whilst The Swampers’ studio went towards rock and singer/songwriters like Traffic and Lynryd Skynryd. Regardless, the breadth and quality of the music that came out of this little town during this period simply astounds.
This documentary, directed by Greg “Freddy” Camalier, explores the history of these two studios in depth. It doesn’t really produce anything unique or amazing in the documentary world, this being a standard mixture of talking heads, music and archival footage, but considering that the soundtrack is loaded with great tracks it’s hard not to enjoy the light-hearted ebullience of the film. Importantly, the film also makes an attempt to explain what the Muscle Shoals sound actually is rather than just basking in its glory, although it doesn’t get bogged down in the technological detail. Muscle Shoals also provides an interesting insight into Rick Hall, who emerges as a sympathetic figure, an underdog who has undergone far more than his fair share of tragedy and rejection in his life and yet has still maintained his dignity and strength, even into his 80s.
There are a handful of missteps in the film, namely that the first voice we hear in the film is that of fucking Bono, who, for the record, has never once recorded in Muscle Shoals so he can fuck himself because he has nothing interesting to say about anything, the useless Apple-sucking cunt. The other main misstep is the film’s attempt to explain why Muscle Shoals the town seems to have such a long history of producing fantastic music, to which the answer seems to be “there’s something in the water”, and director Camalier applies just a little too much mother-earth-type mysticism in this regard. No doubt the area around Muscle Shoals is beautiful, and location has always played a crucial part in the sound of a piece of music, but the Muscle Shoals sound is not an inherent side-effect of there being spirits in the water, and such theories just come off as hokey.
Otherwise, if you like top-quality soul music, which you should because otherwise you’re a twat, Muscle Shoals is a fine documentary. It might not be pushing the boat in terms of controversy or style, but it is still a handsome, well-crafted film with some excellent music to boot.