4 out of 4 stars
“Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers and they’ve been known to pick a song or two (yes they do). Lord they get me off so much — they pick me up when I’m feeling blue now how about you?” Do those lyrics ring a bell? They’re from “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd — the song that closes what is arguably the finest musical documentary feature film ever produced.
There are a few cities in America (and elsewhere) that have been claimed as the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll. Some say it was Cleveland, others choose Detroit, most pick Memphis and there are a few others that insist it was Liverpool. None of the principals in this movie ever make such self-aggrandizing statements; mostly because they don’t have to. Rock ’n’ roll wasn’t invented in this tiny corner of northwest Alabama; it was there where it was improved upon.
If you haven’t heard of Muscle Shoals as it applies to music, you shouldn’t feel uninformed. Unlike the above-mentioned locations it doesn’t define a sound but rather a certain unexplainable, organic vibe. On the banks of the Tennessee River, the city is steeped in historical Native American lore and is described by many famous musicians throughout the film with divergently different, non-musical termonology.
All of it started in the early ’60s when sound engineer Rick Hall founded the FAME studio. After recording a few soul chestnuts (including “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge), Hall got a huge break when Atlantic Records big-wig Jerry Wexler called and asked if his newly signed artist (Aretha Franklin) could come down to record her first post-Columbia single (“I Never Loved a Man (the Way That I Love You)”).
Arriving with just a skeleton of the song, Franklin finished it with Hall’s handpicked studio musicians and the classic tune was cut, but in the process, the trumpet player flirted with Franklin, in turn angering her then husband and a drunken Hall — wanting to save the day — inflamed the situation by going toe-to-toe with Franklin’s equally buzzed husband — and it all ended ugly.
This event cost Hall big time. An infuriated Wexler effectively stole Hall’s band and finished the album in New York and spread the word — like unrepentant wildfire — that Hall was an unprofessional hothead. Wexler’s claims weren’t entirely untrue; the maverick Hall — a gifted but iconoclastic artist — was determined to do things his way, period. He soon regrouped and assembled another backing band — the Swampers.
Like the first FAME group, the Swampers was an innocuous bit of unintended reverse racism meant as a compliment but was also dead-on accurate. For the next five years, Hall and the Swampers (Berry Beckett and Spooner Oldham on the keyboards, Roger Hawkins on drums, David Hood on bass and Jimmy Johnson on guitar) — by then known as the “Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section” — became the go-to, all-in-one production ensemble for the Rock elite.
“Muscle Shoals” could have been just another Rock-origin story but director Greg Camilier transforms it into something far deeper and wide-reaching. With his full co-operation, Camilier delves into Halls’ tumultuous and troubled personal life which goes far in explaining his exacting approach to recording and business dealings. Hall drove his performers to a point most of them found to be excessive, yet he always got what he and they (maybe not knowing it at the time) wanted in the long run.
The Rhythm Section — who eventually figured out they had something so special that Hall probably couldn’t replicate it a second time — eventually struck out on their own and as a result, set up an acrimonious rivalry that went on for decades. Now given two primo options in this most unique setting, recording artists were offered the best of all possible situations: choose the originator or his most learned disciples — each with equally impressive track records. On a musical level, it was a no-lose proposition which — not surprisingly — increased the quality of the performances and productions.
For rock fans, “Muscle Shoals” is an indispensable profile of a slice of musical history that should not be missed (be sure to see it on a big screen). For movie enthusiasts, it offers an entirely different meaning for the term “documentary.” For those of us living in the South, it heralds a resounding, fitting and accurate proclamation: Memphis invented rock ’n’ roll and Muscle Shoals made it better. (Magnolia)