'You’re going to hear some of the greatest voices that ever were,' says Bono, as a roll call of the biggest and brightest in the business – Aretha Franklin, Mick Jagger and Jimmy Cliff among them – adorns the screen. In the documentary that shares the name of a little town in Alabama with a population of 8,000, the making of music history is unveiled in the unlikeliest of places. On the banks of the Tennessee River, many a rock and roll and soul hit built from quiet beginnings to echo around the world.
The story of Muscle Shoals starts as the story of Rick Hall, founder of the town’s FAME Studios in the early 1960s. Sparked by a life-long desire to do something special, and spurred on by grief that could only be resolved in music, Hall nurtured his studio band in the distinctive sweaty, swampy, muddy, funky style the area is now known for. As their successes and high-profile clients mounted under the perfectionist’s rule, the musicians soon broke off to start their own recording establishment: Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. The rivalry between the two was fierce; their competition beget musical genius.
Talking heads, both household names and not, recount the experiences that elevated Muscle Shoals to legendary status in the industry – and the tales told, of careers, milestones and turning points made – cement its reputation. Director Greg 'Freddy' Camalier weaves in and out of crucial chapters in entertainment, all set to a soundtrack of the songs that resulted, 'When a Man Loves a Woman', 'R.E.S.P.E.C.T.', 'Brown Sugar', 'Wild Horses' and 'Free Bird' included. The social, cultural and political climate provides context, and presents the varying shades of the locale: a town pioneering racial equality in the midst of vehement Southern segregation, one intricately tied to its unique river-set geography, and also the birthplace of Helen Keller.
In his first effort as a filmmaker, Camalier’s coverage is extensive – in well-researched topics, in engaging interview subjects, and in archival footage, spanning times and tales both good and bad. Just as expansive, even in its essaying of darker days, is the pervasive passion that emanates from the film and those within its frames. Keith Richards talks about the band never having as prolific as they were in their time there. Alicia Keys opines her desire to have sung one of the many early songs that put it on the map. Every anecdote seethes with affection and enthusiasm.
Again and again, as its name suggests Muscle Shoals always comes back to its sense of place, and its dynamic but relaxed vibe that resounds in the film’s tempo and style. Sections of the feature meander, but are so joyous the diversion is almost welcome; Camalier’s aesthetic preferences are scratchy and lived-in, polish evident around the edges but slickness pleasantly absent. As the feature continues and the stories add up, it is this earned sincerity, this unhurried celebration, that resonates. And the songs – of course, the songs: the true, tangible example of the impact of the sleepy rural spot that made great music memorable.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Director: Greg 'Freddy' Camalier
US, 2013, 108 mins
Release date: December 27 at ACMI