What do Bono, The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Greg Allman, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Stevie Winwood, Alicia Keys, Etta James and Percy Sledge have in common besides phenomenal records that went on to sell millions? The place where they got the sound that resonated with fans and listeners world-wide. This place by the Tennessee River has an ineffable energy and Native American mysticism. It’s a place steeped in mythology and the history of the people of the land who were poor but who made music and rhythms as visceral as the origins of man and as American as our rivers and mountains.
Muscle Shoals, Alabama lured those listed above as well as the likes of Paul Simon, Elton John, Wilson Pickett, Bob Dylan and many others to get down the unique sounds and rhythms and create their award winning, world changing music. And who would have thought that young and unknown Aretha Franklin and Percy Sledge would gather the energy for their incredible musical identity from the musicians who originated the “muscle shoals” sound? All of this and much more is revealed in the fascinating, stirring documentary Muscle Shoals about the place by the “Singing River” and how it touched the world.
The Muscle Shoals area was blessed with not one but two unassuming recording studios far from the glitter and churning grind of big cities London, New York and Los Angeles. They produced the sounds that were able to express the longings of a wide, cultural range of youth and adults, touching their souls and inspiring them to enhance their lives with this music that ironically came from the backwater of a racist culture that still embraced the discriminatory values of the confederate South at the time of their creation in1960s. The documentary tells the story of how this sound originated, the founding of each of the studios and the sturm und drang of the politics of power and intrusion by others to attempt to destroy one of them.
It is the story of Rick Hall founder of FAME studios (known as The Father of Muscle Shoals Music) who came from extreme poverty but had the ambition and the tympanum to recognize phenomenal music and the inspiration and drive to gather together great musicians to produce nothing like what had ever been heard before. It is also the story of The Swampers, the band who eventually broke from Rick Hall to start their own recording studio. In each studio blacks and whites made music together and quietly hung together, an anathema in the South, during the 1960s civil rights protests, anti-war protests and cultural upheaval. But what started and was fused then created a freedom of music that revived the human spirit and created advocacy movements that today are now mainstream and as ubiquitous as peanut butter and jelly.
Director Greg “Freddy” Camalier has created this documentary labor of love using upfront, recent interviews with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Aretha Franklin, Steve Winwood, Bono, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett and many more, including the Swampers, all enthusiastic, all poetically themselves telling their experiences and highlighting the time, the place and the dynamics of making this incredible Muscle Shoals music. These interviews are marvelous, first-of-a-kinds, and make for exceptional story telling. Camalier has bound them together with narration by Rick Hall and others and is liberal with historic clips of earlier times of the musicians playing, Hall, the beauty of the area then and now and music clips of the songs. He is clever to cut in shots of the young Jagger with the aging rocker’s wizened comments about how and why The Stones went there for a time instead of anywhere else to make their music. He is also liberal with Greg Allman clips and others in their youth and now.
In Camalier’s selection of these iconic artists who went to Muscle Shoals, he has served to remind us of a historic time in this nation and to be inspired. Though there were great social divisions, people could be brought together by the music of these special artists whose other-worldly, incorruptible underpinnings transcended the time and helped the rest of the culture do the same. The Swampers’ music has appeared on more than 75 gold and platinum hits. Some of the songs played in the documentary are “I’ll Take You There,” “Brown Sugar,” “When a Man Loves a Woman,” and others. In Camalier’s editing of these clips with the past film snippets and with present interviews, credit goes to the archivists and the labor and effort it took to cobble all together in a truly wonderful American documentary. Muscle Shoals, Alabama, an amazing and mystical place by the “Singing River.”