‘Muscle Shoals’: Turn it up

September 25, 2013


Either the title of the documentary “Muscle Shoals” resonates with you – in which case it resonates hard – or you have no idea what it means.

But you should – or you should find out by watching the movie, one of the year’s most entertaining and enriching nonfiction films. When the end of the year comes around, I’ll be hard-pressed to choose between it and “20 Feet from Stardom” as my favorite documentary of the year.

Directed by Greg Camalier, “Muscle Shoals” focuses on the small town in Alabama that became the unlikely home of two of the funkiest, most influential recording studios in America in the 1960s and 70s up through today. The film pays homage to the town and the environs, as well as to the amazing story of the unlikely blend of personalities that put Muscle Shoals on the map of American popular music history, a brand name as recognizable as Motown or Stax.

At the center of the story is Rick Hall, now 81. Born into stark poverty, self-taught as a musician and songwriter, he built his own recording establishment in Muscle Shoals – Fame Studios – after being kicked out of another partnership for being too much of a perfectionist. He assembled a group of local kids who wanted to be musicians and created his own studio band – which became known as the Swampers, the funkiest outfit this side of the Funk Brothers in Motown.

He had a hit with his first recording – Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On,” subsequently covered by the Rolling Stones – then followed it with a tune by a singer who had never performed outside of local talent shows and Elks Clubs: Percy Sledge and “When a Man Loves a Woman.” That record brought him to the attention of Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records, an r’n’b hotbed that released Sledge’s single and rode it to the top of the charts.

Suddenly everyone wanted to record at Muscle Shoals – from Wilson Pickett to Aretha Franklin and on and on. But after a falling out with Wexler (over a set-to Hall had with Aretha’s husband/manager), Wexler took the Swampers – Jimmy Johnson, David Hood, Barry Beckett, Spooner Oldham and Roger Hawkins – to New York and finished Franklin’s first Atlantic album there. In time, Wexler would betray Hall further, helping the Swampers to build their own studio, where they produced and played behind artists as diverse as Bob Seger, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones.

muscle shoals

Camalier’s story-telling bounces back and forth, between tales of amazing artists doing their best work and Hall’s own personal travails. Aside from his bitter break with the Swampers, he had a life (which he recounts) that featured what seems like a string of tragedies. Yet he remains a steadfast and dedicated producer and worker.

The film features interviewees ranging from Mick Jagger and Keith Richard to Aretha and Percy Sledge to Bono, Alicia Keys and Gregg Allman. Sometimes the stories seem to digress too far – such as Jimmy Johnson’s long tale about finding and producing a first Lynyrd Skynyrd album that never saw the light of day.

Or the stories about the Allman Brothers: Duane Allman played on sessions with the Swampers – including adding fiery guitar lines to Aretha’s tunes – before starting his own historic band. He gets a good chunk of time (illustrated mostly by still photos and people talking about him) for a story about how he used a Coricidin container to develop a unique bottleneck-guitar sound. Eventually, it comes out that, in fact, Hall didn’t get how good the Allmans were and let them slip away.

Still, Hall is a genteel and articulate raconteur, as are Johnson and the other Swampers. The music in the movie is filled with soul and rock’n’roll classics, linking a huge swath of the great music of our time to a specific wide spot in the road.

Moving and joyful, “Muscle Shoals” is must-see stuff for anyone who loves that music. See it and you will understand the music’s timeless quality.

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