As a huge music fan who nevertheless can’t play a note, I always enjoy watching documentaries about behind the scenes details about the music business and how the greatest records of all time were recorded. While there are hundreds of music documentaries, many are fairly pedestrian and focus on household names who have sold millions of records and whose stories are already well-known. The stars of MUSCLE SHOALS, a documentary about two prolific recording studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, certainly have had that “sold millions of records” part down since the 1960s, but their lives have been anything but open books.
If you ever wondered what Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant meant by the lines “In Muscle Shoals they got the Swampers/And they’ve been known to pick a song or two” in Sweet Home Alabama, the documentary MUSCLE SHOALS has the answer. The town of Muscle Shoals, Alabama became a somewhat unlikely major hub of soul, R&B and rock music beginning in the early 1960s with FAME Studios, which was founded by native Rick Hall. Hall is a seemingly ancient producer who overcame a life full of tragedy to turn his town into a recoding juggernaut. The list of world-famous musicians who recorded major hit songs in Muscle Shoals is nearly endless, with many of them commenting on their work in the town in the documentary, including Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Gregg Allman, and The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards and Mick Jagger.
So what’s the reason why an out-of-the-way studio became such a mecca for great music? The documentary offers many explanations about the environment, but the true reason is that the house musicians for FAME Studios developed a powerful sound that has been impossible to find anywhere else in the decades since. It’s the kind of music that gives you chills if you sit down and really absorb it. The documentary goes into depth about these musicians, particularly because the group of white guys behind the instruments seem to be the furthest thing from “soul” musicians on the planet.
Because of this, the documentary serves as a spectacular journey through American R&B and soul music of the 1960s and 1970s. Naturally the documentary focuses on the hey-day of Muscle Shoals, and there’s little said about the records made here since aside from recent footage of Alicia Keys recording a Bob Dylan song that Dylan originally recorded here (and oddly U2’s Bono appears numerous times in the documentary though he never recorded music here). However, it’s an incredible ride. In particular, I’m impressed by the participation of world-famous musicians as “talking heads” – Keith Richards, one of my all-time idols, is particularly hysterical as usual – rather than relying on “music journalists” to tell second-hand stories as so many documentaries do.
The only aspect of worry is that first-time director Greg “Freddy” Camalier has set an extremely high bar for himself. I don’t know how he’ll ever be able to follow up this supremely entertaining and informative documentary with his next film. However, after seeing Muscle Shoals I know I’ll be in line to see what he does next.
Review Rating: 4 out of 5 : See it …… It’s Very Good