Muscle Shoals is a documentary about the eponymous, unassuming little town alongside the Tennessee River in Alabama that somehow changed music history. Rick Hall grew up in the town and admits how he went from “nothing to something”, from abject poverty to the founding of FAME Studios.
FAME Studios and the famous “Muscle Shoals sound” began much earlier. The documentary begins with wide, sweeping panoramas of the beautiful landscape of the American South, and interviewees speaking of the deep-rooted mysticism and folklore of the place. The pulsing river running through the area, apparently inhabited by a Native American spirit, is the source of a rhythm that comes up through the soil, which many credit as the reason that the music industry has thrived here.
Through candid interviews with some of the biggest iconoclasts of the music business, from Etta James to Mick Jagger to Aretha Franklin, director Greg “Freddy” Camalier shows how this out-of-the-way spot in the lush Alabama countryside revolutionised music. The musicians interviewed speak reverently of the place, of its history and the amazing music that it helped them to produce. Aretha Franklin states decisively that Muscle Shoals was the turning point in her career.
The film moves chronologically through the creation of the Muscle Shoals sound: Rick Hall’s upbringing, his founding of the now famous recording studio, the departure of some of his closest friends and collaborators, and where the institution stands today. The beats of funk and swing slide into the guitars and rock ‘n’ roll of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Rolling Stones; all this is accompanied by intimate video recordings of historic studio sessions retrieved from the annals of time, and personal anecdotes from the main players in the story.
The whole piece is a labour of love and the fruit of intensive research. However, such a fascination with and reverence for the place has the effect of drawing out scenes for longer than strictly necessary, and eventually the action drags and interest wanes. For a place with such a saturated and important history, the editing was obviously the hardest part, and this is where Camalier would have benefited from some distance from his passion for the subject. It is a surprise that there hasn’t been anything on Muscle Shoals before, and Camalier’s effort is almost exhaustive, if not also exhausting.
Muscle Shoals is released on 25th October 2013.
Watch the trailer for Muscle Shoals here: