Muscle Shoals tells tuneful tales
A documentary by Greg Camalier. Unrated. Opens Friday, October 18, at the Vancity Theatre
New Orleans, Liverpool, Detroit. Certain place names conjure certain moments in popular music. Tennessee has two music cities: Nashville and Memphis. And the Tennessee River runs down through Alabama, alongside tiny Muscle Shoals, which somehow managed to generate two world-class studios.
This uneven but fascinating documentary finds something in the water aside from the mussels for which the town was actually named. Crucially, it created Rick Hall, one of the most driven record producers ever to wax tracks in the USA. Growing up poor in this virulently racist region, Hall wrote songs from an early age and sought out musicians both black and white.
Hall’s catholic tastes surfaced when he launched FAME Studios, backing black bellhop Arthur Alexander with funky country players. “You Better Move On” was soon covered by the Rolling Stones, who eventually recorded at FAME, as recalled by Mick Jagger and a wheezy Keith Richards. Hall repeated the trick with Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman”. And then Aretha Franklin (also commenting) crafted her spectacularly raw Atlantic Records debut there. The “Respect” sessions led to a falling-out with Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler, and Hall’s in-house rhythm section, called the Swampers (as shouted out in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”) left to open their own room across town.
Hall’s personal woes grow heavy on the rhapsodically shot movie, so it’s nice when—thanks to first-time director Greg “Freddy” Camalier—he joins the Swampers for one more round in the studio. Backing a forgettable Alicia Keys somewhat dilutes the impact, just as commentary from Bono—who never recorded in Muscle Shoals—favours glamour over authenticity. But you’d have to be without soul not to enjoy these tuneful tales of Duane Allman, Wilson Pickett, Etta James, Otis Redding, and the other sonic heroes who washed up on the magical south bank of the Tennessee.