Published on November 19th, 2013 | by Craig Silliphant0
The documentary Muscle Shoals joins the ranks of some of the terrific movies for music nerds that have been released in the last few years, in the vein of Standing in the Shadows of Motown, 20 Feet From Stardom, and the first ¾ of Sound City (the last ¼ was a bit of a wank).
The movie tells the story of the famed recording studio that produced a ton of hits (well, actually, two recording studios) and became famous for ‘that Muscle Shoals sound.’ Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, and Wilson Pickett were among the early adopters of this greasy, drum and bass heavy sonic signature. Later on, when the word got out about this little studio, tucked away in Alabama, came The Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, and a myriad of other players. You’ll remember that the studio is mentioned in the Lynyrd Skynyrd song ‘Sweet Home Alabama’: “Muscle Shoals has got The Swampers/and they’ve been known to pick a song or two…”
The Swampers was the nickname given to the original house band, a group of white guys that played alongside some of the best black musicians of the era. Of course, most people thought they were black too. Because you couldn’t ‘see’ the players in those early days, the studio was a strange pocket of racial harmony in an otherwise segregated Alabama. The movie documents The Swampers and the history of the studio, from those early days to the present, with access to some excellent talking heads (um, and a pontificating Bono, for some reason). There are also the requisite ‘Gimme Shelter’ shots of Mick Jagger and The Stones listening to playback with solemn, thoughtful looks on their faces.
While the homey feelings inspired by the room itself are important, like Standing in the Shadows of Motown made The Funk Brothers famous, this movie largely belongs to The Swampers (and on a lesser note, The Fame Gang). It is testament to the fact that amazing music can be made on the fringes, by players that click together and jam with feel. The film also belongs to FAME Studios founder Rick Hall, who gave The Swampers their first job as the house band, until they left to start their own studio. The insights of these players paint a vivid picture of the era. Hall’s personal stories are good, and they tie into his career and set a poetic tone, though after awhile they become thin and obvious. It’s not enough to impact the movie, though it’s probably a winning film because of the subject material, as opposed to the somewhat generic way the documentary itself is cobbled together.
Muscle Shoals is also a fascinating glimpse at a time before mass media really took over, when you could pick up the phone and just call guys like Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler. Or an unknown, long-haired Duane Allman could just camp out on the lawn of the famous studio until they relented to hiring him. It was a smaller world. Even The Beatles and George Martin, as amazing as they were, were also in the right place at the right time in their own studio to explore psychedelia and new tech to create game changers like ‘Sgt. Pepper’s.’ But none of that should diminish the fact that Muscle Shoals was a magnet for greatness.
Sadly, because popular music has become so thin, the most famous ‘modern’ artist they feature at the end of the movie from the current era is bland R&B singer Alicia Keys — but stay for the credits to go out on top. And that said, Muscle Shoals is a must see for music fans, a mash note to famous musicians that have gone unheralded, and primer on what makes for studio magic. Even those who aren’t music history aficionados will be swept into the realm of sweet soul music and the idea that you can create art that will last through time if you put enough heart into it.