Greg Camalier’s debut feature, Muscle Shoals, charts the unlikely story of a sleepy Alabama town that emerged as the creative epicentre for a signature sound coveted by some of the greatest musicians of all-time.
Remarkably the distinctively southern and heavily blues-influenced soulfulness that seeped out of Muscle Shoals, emanated from five white session musicians and one visionary record producer. Under the steely supervision of the inimitable Rick Hall, The Swampers, consisting of Barry Beckett on keyboard, organist Spooner Oldham, Roger Hawkins on the drums, guitarist Jimmy Johnson, and bassist David Hood, were the improbable yet integral foundation of the distinctive and much sought-after musical authenticity, that would become revered as “the Muscle Shoals sound”.
A plethora of important artists, from a spectrum as diverse as Wilson Pickett, The Rolling Stones, Etta James, Percy Sledge, Jimmy Cliff, Paul Simon, Rod Stewart, Paul Anka and Lynyrd Skynyrd, made the musical crusade to Muscle Shoals, with aspirations of capturing what Aretha Franklin describes as the “greasy” sound.
It was the latter’s iconic recording session at Fame Studios in 1967, delightfully recalled in this documentary, which cemented Muscle Shoals’ musical legend. It was here, under the astute production of Hall and abetted by the unique musical dexterity of the Swampers, that Franklin’s searing potential was realised when they cut the enchantingly seductive, ‘I Never Loved a Man (The Way I loved You)’.
Camalier’s enthralling film is at its best when the focus is on these hugely iconic moments in popular culture. First-hand accounts from Franklin, poeticising about the “the turning point in my career”, to Mick Jagger championing the ineffable atmosphere nurtured by Hall, are beautifully supplemented by bewitching archival footage that allows the myth of Muscle Shoals to come alive.
A gnarled Keith Richards rues the fact that having recorded Brown Sugar and Wild Horses at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, the splinter studio formed by the Swampers when they split from Hall, the Stones never managed to return. This insight is cleverly juxtaposed by grainy footage of Jagger and Richards in all their anarchic, peacocking glory, revelling in their newly discovered sound.
It’s an exquisitely shot spectacle and Camalier with his director of photography, Anthony Arendt, have effortlessly captured the sweaty and atmospheric Deep South. The lingering shots of the roaring Tennessee River and its lusciously green surroundings are stunning in their execution, and although they are perhaps a little bewildering in their frequency, they successfully manage to portray the magical qualities associated with these muggy enclaves. The Yuchi Indians that once inhabited Muscle Shoals affectionately referred to the thunderous waters of the Tennessee as, ‘The Singing River’, and the evocative cinematography is an aesthetic nod to the shoals’ mythological virtue.
It is by no means flawless; the film is often distracted by the various, albeit interesting, narratives that meander their way through Fame and the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Some of the major themes are given little context, such as the issue of race. Where music transcended racial tension within the innocuous aforementioned studios, Alabama remained one of the most segregated states in America and yet this contradiction is only occasionally alluded to. Camalier chooses instead to retain focus on the Muscle Shoals sound and any lack of refinement is forgotten amid the simply spellbinding music.
Whether it’s Wilson Pickett’s thumping, ‘Land of 1000 Dances’, or Percy Sledge’s seminal, ‘When a Man Loves a Woman,’ Muscle Shoals boasts one of the most phenomenal and exhilarating soundtracks. The music reverberates through this always engaging documentary like the Tennessee River through Muscle Shoals, making it a worthy ode to an enchanting place.