Directed by: Greg “Freddy” Camalier.
Muscle Shoals is a small Alabama town on the banks of the Tennessee River. As far as the location for a famed recording studio – which helped launch the careers of many great artists, who recorded some of their best work there you really cannot find a more unlikely spot. Yet the FAME studio, founded by Rick Hall, who helped produce and write much of the music there, did exactly that. Muscle Shoals the documentary is a movie for those of us who want to hear some of the backstory behind these artists and songs, and hear some of their best music. On that level, the movie works – you’ll be entertained throughout the film. Yet I cannot help but think there is a better, more complex documentary that could have been made about the studio – one director Greg “Freddy” Camalier doesn’t seem interested in making. He fills his movie with stories of the river that runs near the town – that local natives called “The Singing River” – and has Bono wax poetic about the meaning of water in the music - what the hell Bono is doing in the documentary I have no idea since he never recorded there – neither for that matter did Alicia Keys, who also appears, but at least she does a rousing rendition of a classic Muscle Shoals tune. He also fills it with stories of the Swampers – the Muscle Shoals house band, which was basically a bunch of white guys, who provided the backbone of much of the rhythm and blues that Muscle Shoals recorded. The movie celebrates Hall and his bringing together of black and white performers and music – and it should. Yet while the movie tries to paint a portrait of everything being harmonious, I never quite bought it. What goes unaddressed in the documentary is the controversy some of the music inspired. The Rolling Stones recorded Brown Sugar there after all – and Lynard Skynyrd recorded there as well. The doc doesn’t mention the former, but spends a good chunk of time on Syknyrd – yet for some reason never feels the need to address the elephant in the room.
That flaw kept me from loving Muscle Shoals as much as I wanted to. There is a lot in the film to admire. Rick Hall is a fascinating character – with his old timey mustache, cowboy hat and Southern drawl. If you cast someone to play Hall in a movie, no one would believe him – he seems almost too much like a stereotype at first. But there are layers to Hall –only some of which he reveals. The Swampers themselves are fascinating as well. They say the secret to their success was simply matching whatever artist they recorded with was throwing down. So when Aretha Franklin showed up – after being let go by one record label when her career refused to take off - mostly because they wouldn’t let Aretha let loose – and she was finally given a chance to be Aretha on songs like I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You) – the Swampers had keep up with her. They did the same thing for most of the acts they ended up recording with – whatever sound you wanted, they could give you.
There are lots of fascinating stories in the movie – Percy Sledge on When a Man Loves a Woman for instance. But then there is also a lot of filler – Mick Jagger and Keith Richards both appear (separately) – but cannot seem to articulate much about Muscle Shoals or what drew them there. And I’ve already addressed the puzzling inclusion of Bono and Alicia Keys. There are a lot of celebrities that come and go throughout the movie – and while some provide good insight, many don’t. The film is at its best when it deals with the non-celebrities – the ones who spent years in Muscle Shoals recording music, and saw everything. The celebrities are a side dish that the movie too often treats as a main course.
Yet, the music in the movie is wonderful. That is undeniable. But the film suffers in comparison to another musical documentary this year – 20 Feet from Stardom, about backup singers. That film, while still ultimately a feel good movie, addressed the implicit racism in the music industry at the time much of that movie – and this one – takes place. After watching 20 Feet from Stardom, I’m not sure I can ever again listen to Lynard Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama the same way again – which hurts Muscle Shoals, since a lyric in that song made it famous. Muscle Shoals is a fine documentary, filled with great music. It could have been a great one though.