Reviewer’s Rating: ★★★
“At different points in time on this planet, there are certain places where there is a field of energy. At this certain point in time for a number of years, there was Muscle Shoals.” Jimmy Cliff, Jamaican reggae star
The names of the songs, the names of the artists, reveal how important a small city in Alabama is to American music.
Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter, the Staple Singers, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Jimmy Cliff, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Seger and the Rolling Stones made music in Muscle Shoals.
Songs recorded at FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound include “When a Man Loves a Woman,” “Mustang Sally,” “Tell Mama,” “I’ll Take You There,” “Patches,” “I Never Loved A Man the Way That I Loved You,” “Brown Sugar,” “Kodachrome,” “Freebird,” “Mainstreet.”
“Muscle Shoals,” the documentary, tells the extraordinary story of singers, songwriters, musicians, producers and, most of all, two recording studios. A labor of love for first-time director Greg “Freddy” Camalier, it’s also an unusually beautiful documentary. Camalier sets FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound in the context of their watery, rural surroundings.
Muscle Shoals sits besides the Tennessee River, a body of water known to the Indians as the Singing River. Much is made of the locale. Various interviewees describe it as a place of mythological power.
“At different points in time on this planet,” Jamaican reggae star Jimmy Cliff says, “there are certain places where there is a field of energy. At this certain point in time for a number of years, there was Muscle Shoals.”
Camalier lays the nature and mystical angles on thickly. His film also runs long at 1 hour, 51 minutes. And when it reaches what feels like an ending, tape keeps rolling. Twenty minutes could have been cut with no ill effects, but there’s no denying the worthwhile material the movie holds.
Despite the 52 years that have elapsed since FAME Studio founder Rick Hall produced the first hit from Muscle Shoals, Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On,” Camalier gathers a surprising number of surviving artists and studio principals who recorded in the city.
Sledge (an Alabama native and Baton Rouge resident), Carter, Franklin, Rolling Stones Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Traffic co-founder Steve Winwood, Alicia Keys and Bono are seen in newly shot interviews. Atlantic Records principal and producer Jerry Wexler, Etta James and Wilson Pickett also recall their work at FAME.
Most of all there’s Hall. He gets biopic treatment within the documentary, including his impoverished childhood. After he grew up like an animal, he says, “I wanted to be special. I wanted to be somebody.”
Hall is a fascinating character, the instigator of the Muscle Shoals sound, but he gets too much screen time. Camalier clearly loves his subjects too much to enforce some helpful objectivity.
Depicting the teaming of black singers and white musicians, during and just after the Jim Crow era of repression and segregation, is one of the things the movie does especially well.
“A lot of people,” Sledge says, “could not believe that my whole band was white guys.”
“By us being in Muscle Shoals,” Carter says, “and putting music together, I think it went a long ways to help people understand that we all were just humans.”