Muscle Shoals Review


“It’s like the songs come out of the mud.”

That’s Bono, trying to explain how a small Alabama town of 8,000—the titular town of Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier’s documentary—could produce some of the best, most soulful music in humankind’s history. Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Etta James, Clarence Carter—not to mention rock acts like The Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and The Allman Brothers—are among Muscle Shoals’s most influential and well-known alumni, and they’re all on hand to pay deference to a place that’s given them, and all of us as listeners, an unforgettable sound.

Muscle Shoals (the movie) is exceptional. It’s simple in execution—famous talking heads reminisce about their favorite Muscle Shoals memories. But what it’s missing in, say, originality or style, it more than makes up for in heart and soul.

Rick Hall is the town’s most influential music proprietor. He has the mustache of a Disney villain, but an ear like no other. He covers his own personal history in great detail, and it’s fascinating. He lost a wife, brother, and father all tragically, and his career went through many ups and downs, but his success needs no further explanation.

Hall runs FAME Studios, which for years was also the home of the Swampers—the rhythm section that deserves as much credit as Hall does for hits like “When a Man Loves a Woman” and “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”. One of the story’s most compelling moments occurs when the Swampers recount the time they told Hall—a tough dude by any definition of the word—that they were leaving FAME to start their own studio. “You’ll fail,” he told them. They didn’t, but the competition seemed to do wonders for the Muscle Shoals sound in general. Both FAME and the new Muscle Shoals Sound Studio reinvented themselves, and today, artists (like Alicia Keys) still flock to Alabama to record in these renowned studios.

Muscle Shoals isn’t afraid to discuss race in the context of music. What it has to say—that it’s surprising the all-white Swampers could churn out such soulful tunes—is far from deep, but during an era when and in place where black and white were separate and very much not equal, it’s nice to see race set aside in the name of creating beautiful art.

The reason to watch the film, though, is the music. Camalier’s film is overflowing with it from a craft standpoint, and story-wise, it’s everything. To compensate visually, Camalier plays up the idea that Muscle Shoals is a “magical land,” and as such, we’re treated to some breathtaking outdoor photography. It’s a tenuous claim, of course, but there are enough great minds involved in the film to make you wonder: what exactly is going on down in Muscle Shoals? While it’s impossible to say with any certainty, the results—the music—speak for themselves.

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