Anyone with even a slight interest in the eruption of blues, funk and rock that came out of Muscle Shoals, Alabama in the 1960s will enjoy the documentary film Muscle Shoals, directed by Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier. It’s a phenomenal piece of music history that tells a story many may not be familiar with. That’s the story of Rick Hall, owner of FAME studios, the first recording studio in Muscle Shoals, and the musicians he brought together to create a sound no one had ever heard before.
This movie made me wonder how many people know about the producers and artists behind some of the biggest hits from Otis Redding, Etta James, Wilson Pickett and Percy Sledge. And that’s to name only a handful of big-time stars involved in the development of what Keith Richards calls, “the Muscle Shoals sound.” So many hit songs, so many great performances came out of these studios where singers and instrumentalists collaborated to make some really awesome music. Most had no idea they were changing the sound of contemporary music, as people knew it at the time. As Donna Jean Godchaux of the Grateful Dead says in the film: “You never know when you’re making history.”
One of the first stories in the film tells of Paul Simon travelling to Muscle Shoals in 1973 to work with the studio musicians behind the big hits that were coming out of this small town in Alabama. When he arrived he assumed he’d meet the black musicians that backed up the gospel and soul band The Staples on their hit “I’ll Take You There”. Instead he was introduced to a group of white guys who, unbeknownst to Simon, could play just as soulful and funky as anyone else. But Simon soon realized it didn’t matter what race of people were backing him up; and he knew, just like other musicians that came in flocks to Muscle Shoals, that to make a record here meant you would make a hit record.
And therein lies the real beauty of this movie. Muscle Shoals is not just a documentary about music. The backstory here is that the civil rights movement in Alabama was in full swing at the time hit records were being made in Muscle Shoals. Inside the studios no one cared what color you were. No one cared where you came from or who your family was. Muscle Shoals was a place where black people and white people just made music together.
The description of Muscle Shoals says it, “celebrates Rick Hall, the founder of FAME Studios.” And it does. He hired the musicians and he picked the talent. During takes, his almost bitter guidance and criticism leads many musicians to some of their best playing and singing ever. And each musician who experienced Muscle Shoals gives Hall the credit. But the man lived a troubled life and it’s often devastating to watch.
While the filmmakers do a fine job of linking a few of his personal stories to the success of FAME, not all of the moments connect and thus, feel forced. Muscle Shoals is made so well that these extremely sad moments are detached from the flow of a film that does a fantastic job of celebrating music and people, especially Rick Hall. What celebrates Hall are the things musicians like Aretha Franklin, Clarence Carter and Jimmy Cliff have to say about working with him. The studio musicians he hired and mentored, who never forgot what he’d done for them, what they say about him is true celebration. Despite his rough, unsmiling demeanor in interviews, we recognize what Rick Hall means for musicians and for Muscle Shoals. But rather than just feeling joyful and in awe of his history making, at the end I felt very sad for him. I’m not sure whether that was the filmmaker’s intentions or not.
Despite this, I loved Muscle Shoals. Musicians think it’s a magical place, where the Tennessee River sings to the people who visit. But as the film progressed I became convinced that the magic did not lie within the region, but the people who came together to make music. Down the road George C. Wallace is blocking black students from entering certain schools. But at FAME studios musicians of different races and backgrounds are making music together, becoming friends, defining art and quite possibly, creating their very own magic.