Muscle Shoals is a name I wasn’t familiar with before I heard of this documentary. By the time the credits rolled I knew it was one of the most important locations in musical history.
Documentaries, quite often, are engaging, emotional experiences because of the people in them. What they go through, what they’re willing to say on camera, and what tears and silences prevent them from saying. But for the first time, last night, I sat and watched a documentary where shots of Muscle Shoals, Alabama held me in place and silenced me with wonder. It’s the most quietly beautiful, wonderfully framed and shot piece of filmmaking I’ve seen for a while. When combined with soulful licks from Rick Hall providing an atmospheric soundtrack, it is a wondrous combination of sound and vision.
But it’s Rick Hall, founder of Fame Studios, and his work with the music of others, that defines Muscle Shoals the documentary. For those who aren’t aware, Rick Hall is an American music producer whose small recording studio, and its eventual competitor (Muscle Shoals Sound Studios), situated miles from Los Angeles, New York or London, produced some of the most iconic songs to grace our ears in the last fifty years.
“Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones, “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You)” by Aretha Franklin – some of the most important and well-crafted songs in history came out of these recording rooms. Director Greg “Freddy” Camalier brings it all to vivid life with a series of funny, insightful and powerful interviews with many of the musicians who had the pleasure of recording their sounds down in Alabama.
The sheer range of people talking about Muscle Shoals in the documentary is what makes it so entertaining. Keith Richards speaking about how later Rolling Stones songs may have sounded funkier had they been recorded back in Alabama instead of Paris, Bono discussing the impact of the sounds coming up out of the mud in the swampy town, Greg Allman relating anecdotes about he and his brothers time spent in the company of Rick Hall.
Rick Hall, of course, is the star of this documentary. Coming from absolutely nothing – he himself states the floor in his childhood home was simply dirt – he drove himself into music and worked hard enough to scrape together the money to get a hold of an old tobacco warehouse, which then became his studio. Every hit, he states, was crucial, as if he couldn’t produce a hit, he felt he would never work in music again.
The result of this is a story of the most driven man I’ve ever seen involved in the music business. A thousand takes? Doesn’t matter, as long as the end result is good enough. Rick Hall is clearly a passionate perfectionist, but he’s also an incredibly soft, deep man whose life was marred by tragedy after tragedy – a dead brother in childhood, a dead wife, then a dead father. Somehow he survived all of it and went on to craft music alongside some of the best in the business.
The Swampers, the house band at Fame Studios and eventually touring musicians, are a joy. Naïve teenagers at the start of the process, and music industry legends whose style, developed in relative ignorance of the rest of the world, came to define the “Muscle Shoals sound,” a term you’ll hear repeatedly throughout. They’re funny, genuine, and very honest about their insecurities.
Muscle Shoals also interesting if you have any interest at all in the black rights movement – when the studio was beginning to pick up speed, their use of black musicians and willingness to socialise with them outside the studio caused some controversy. It’s touching, then, to hear Rick Hall talk about the fact the studio was colour blind, to hear Bono muse on the fact that outside the studio, it was the colour of someone’s skin and not their talent that defined them.
Curiously, the reverse of the situation is quite amusing, as The Swampers were assumed to be black musicians because of their incredibly soulful approach to crafting the soundtracks central to the rise of so many genres. This isn’t uncommon, either – Scotland’s The Average White Band are actually a white band, if anything but average, and it’s amusing to see racial assumptions skewed by these talented boys from Alabama.
Overall, I can’t recommend this documentary enough. I adore music, from raves to jazz clubs, and this was a pleasure to sit through to the point where I’m now simply waiting to get my hands on a copy I can watch again and again and show to other people. To combine a gentle look into wonderful music, breathtaking countryside and passionate, humorous musicians whose work has defined our lives in ways we may not even be aware of is a stellar achievement, and I’m glad this film exists. Watch it.
Muscle Shoals is in UK cinemas now