Film Review: ‘Muscle Shoals’

Whilst never quite reaching the compelling heights of recent rockumentary offerings Beware of Mr. Baker, Crossfire Hurricane or Searching for Sugar Man, Greg Camalier’s Sundance select Muscle Shoals (2013) succeeds in cogently relaying the star-studded history of the now iconic Alabama recording studio in question. Under the tutelage of founder Rick Hall, FAME Studios was responsible for laying down classic recordings from a whole raft of RnB and rock artists, many of whom (those still in the land of the living, at least) providing candid interviews on their time in the presence of the “Muscle Shoals sound”.

Situated on the muddy banks of the winding Tennessee River, the city of Muscle Shoals proved the unlikely breeding ground for some of America’s best and most memorable music produced between the years 1969 and 1984. Receiving spiritual guidance from the “Singing River” (as the departed Native Americans once knew it), Muscle Shoals played its part in the conception of some of the most resonant pop songs of all time. At its heart is the aforementioned Hall who, overcoming poverty and tragedy (including the deaths of both his brother and wife in two separate incidents), brought black and white together amidst ongoing racial tension to record music that would go on to define an entire generation.

Greg Allman, Clarence Carter, Mick Jagger, Etta James, Keith Richards and Percy Sledge are just a few of the recording artists that pay tribute to Hall and FAME Studios throughout Camalier’s warmly-constructed doc, evoking fond memories of an era when music felt like it had the genuine power to change society as we knew it. The Civil Rights Movement bubbles on in the background throughout, with footage of a beaming Martin Luther King meeting and greeting a star-struck Aretha Franklyn on stage following a performance one of several spine-tingling moments. More poignant still are the personal stories behind the Muscle Shoals sound, with Halls rags-to-riches narrative particularly moving. There is, however, the nagging feeling that much of the bad blood that now simmers between the collective has been brushed under the carpet.

Documentaries such as these can live or die on their utilisation of archive footage, and fortunately Muscle Shoals comes fully equipped with reels upon reels of recording sessions with the likes of Franklyn, Jimmy Cliff and The Rolling Stones. It’s the music here that shines brightest, and for fans of any of the artists involved – or American music in general during the 1960s-70s, for that matter – there’s more than enough great content on show here to get feet tapping and hearts thumping. Though comparably lightweight when held up against the very best music documentaries of the past fifty-or-so years, Muscle Shoals still manages to melodically strum the right chord between reverence and hand-clapping revelry.

Daniel Green