Greg Camalier’s music documentary covers a niche subject you’ll probably not even be aware of, yet one that’s proven influential for artists as diverse as Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones and Lynyrd Skynyrd. The small Alabama town of Muscle Shoals has a population of only around 12,000 people even today, though throughout the 1960s and 1970s was a Mecca for the whos-who of blues and rock musicians, who recorded there and collectively crafted what is referred to by the artists and crew as “the Muscle Shoals sound”.
If music documentaries usually tend to focus on experiences or characters that shape a musical sound, it’s invigorating to see a film that takes a fresh approach by broaching environmental influence, suggesting that the grotty recording studios along with the parochial nature of Southern life contributed to a very particular, inimitable musical style. The protagonist of the piece is Rick Hall, who set up the landmark FAME Studios in the 1950s along with a group of session musicians who eventually left to create their own studio, becoming known as The Swampers.
However, Hall remains the focal figure to which all others, in one way or another, gravitate; we learn much of his often tragic personal life throughout, and in particular the acrimonious relationship he developed with the Swampers after they became his rival. In returning to the compositions themselves, especially compelling are the social circumstances that helped to generate the distinctive Shoals sound, in which both studios promoted the mixture of white and black musicians together, something that remained frowned upon long after the Civil Rights Movement was in full force. Simply put, these men were pioneers on not merely a musical level.
Camalier has assembled a comprehensive collection of archive footage alongside interviews with living musicians (Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are particularly good sports) and technicians to provide a glimpse into the most influential period that contemporary music has ever seen. Though the temptation must have been there to paint a mythical veil around the town and its influence, the interviewees do a surprisingly good job of cutting through the flowery prose and actually making sense of the town’s bearing on what we ended up listening to.
Much like the Dave Grohl-directed Sound City that also played Park City this year, Muscle Shoals is a sumptuously assembled, exhaustively comprehensive film about music that changed lives.
Muscle Shoals premieres at Sundance London on April 25th.
This article was first posted on April 24, 2013