out of Five
Running time: 103
A must-see for music fans, Muscle Shoals is a well made, endlessly fascinating and impeccably researched documentary that tells a riveting story and is packed with great characters, terrific anecdotes and fabulous music.
What's it all about?
Directed by Greg Camalier, Muscle Shoals is a documentary about the legendary recording studio based in Muscle Shoals, a sleepy Alabama town located next to the Tennessee River, known locally as ‘the river that sings’. The driving force behind Muscle Shoals' Fame Studio is moustachioed producer Rick Hall, who overcame a horrific family background and a series of personal tragedies before moving into the music business and building an empire, recording classic tracks with the likes of Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin.
Central to Hall's success was his recruitment of a bunch of talented local musicians as Fame Studios' in-house rhythm section, a group of white men who later became known as The Swampers and left Hall to set up a studio of their own (amusingly, many musicians who came to record with the Swampers expected them to be black). After Hall replaced the Swampers with a more racially balanced group called ‘the Fame Gang’, both rival studios went on to great success, producing albums with everyone from the Osmonds to the likes of Rod Stewart, the Allman Brothers, Lynrd Skynyrd and the Rolling Stones, who recorded both Brown Sugar and Wild Horses in Muscle Shoals.
Camalier has assembled a marvellous array of talking heads (including Hall and all the Swampers) and he allows them to tell the story in their own words, often skilfully editing so that different people give different accounts of the same moment simultaneously. The film has also been impeccably researched and Camalier has unearthed a wealth of tremendous archive material that includes a large amount of footage of actual 1960s recordings (most notably Aretha Franklin and the Rolling
Stones) alongside stills, news reports and so on.
Camalier is also careful to establish the historical context of Hall's achievement, noting that while white musicians and black musicians were busy creating beautiful music together, segregation was raging in their home state. Later, one of the Swampers drily remarks that the reaction they got when they went out with black musicians was nothing compared to when they later hung out with long-haired hippies like the Allman Brothers.
The fabulous music is used so well in Muscle Shoals that it will give you new appreciation for the tracks involved, even if you've heard them hundreds of times before. In addition, the film is packed with superb anecdotes (the section involving Aretha Franklin is particularly good in this respect) and there's a ten minute stretch on the Rolling Stones that is better than anything in Crossfire Hurricane.
Muscle Shoals is a thoroughly enjoyable and brilliantly assembled music documentary that tells a fascinating story and gives some unsung heroes their due. If you're a music fan, this is pretty much unmissable.