Aretha Franklin, Mick Jagger, Greg Allman, Jimmy Cliff, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon: the list is music royalty. All of these and more have made the trip to a little ol' town on the Tennessee River in Alabama – Muscle Shoals. This documentary examines the history and music made at the fabled recording studios.
AUSTRALIAN CENTRE FOR THE MOVING INAGE:: 'Magic is the word that comes to mind when I think of Muscle Shoals," announces a very famous rock star who delivers benediction in way too many music documentaries (yes, it’s Bono of U2). What’s fascinating, sometimes unintentionally so, about Greg Camalier’s documentary, which traces the unlikely rise of not one but two legendary recording studios in a nondescript Alabama town, is that 'magic" is shown to be product of many factors, some of which were not very magical at all.
'magic' is shown to be product of many factors, some of which were not very magical at all.
There’s been a steady stream of classic rock and baby boomer-related music documentaries in recent years, whether it’s the backing singer study 20 Feet from Stardom or Dave Grohl’s deification of a Californian recording studio with Sound City. It’s a fine line between looking back at the past with the benefit of calm hindsight and indulging in nostalgia, but Muscle Shoals finds a balance, in the same way that anecdotal memories by some (only some) very wealthy people are contrasted by the atmosphere of driven creativity and productiveness captured by the archival material.
The film also has a distinctive centre in the form of Rick Hall, a portly southern gentleman complete with a moustache whose tips turn upwards, who led a decidedly harder life more than 50 years ago, when as a young man he lost his first wife in a car accident and became a drunken tramp whose only release came from songwriting. It was Hall, after he pulled himself together, who commissioned and ran FAME Studios in a former tobacco warehouse.
Hall was ambitious, meticulous and unconcerned by wider trends. Camalier suggests a mystical connection between the Tennessee River – 'the river that sings," suggests a Native American whose forebears were forcible exiled from the region for Oklahoma – and the sounds captured in the studio, but it’s Hall who is the instigator. With his productions of Arthur Alexander’s 'You Betta Move On' and Percy Sledge’s 'When a Man Loves a Woman', Hall and FAME had hits that went regional, national and then international, bringing in clients.
His house band was The Swampers, who in early photos look like a bunch of burly white college football players but nonetheless helped define the sound of soul and R&B as they began to back famous sessions from the likes of Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett. Alabama’s governor, the infamous George Wallace, was pledging 'segregation forever" at the time, but in long recording sessions local musicians helped break the colour barrier and created sounds that would take African-American artists into the mainstream. This was a byproduct of Hall’s drive, but the film is very good in showing how small moments attain cultural and then social significance.
Contemporary stars add their thoughts, but having Alicia Keys declare that an Aretha Franklin’s 'I Never Loved a Man' gives you the chills doesn’t compare to actually hearing the track. Great songs and revered artists follow swiftly, with juicy memories offset by the music industry’s interest, as The Swampers started their own successful studio nearby and everyone from The Rolling Stones to Tom Jones to The Osmonds came to make records in the town with a population of 8,000 as southern rock joined black music as Muscle Shoals specialties.
Camalier is respectful and not driven to offer judgments, but the material he has collected is so rich in character and vibrant popular art that it’s easy to both enjoy the familiar narrative of a rise against the odds and to make your own connections. If there was magic at FAME, it came from hardier places than Bono can imagine.