It may sound like the title of a nature documentary, but Muscle Shoals actually takes its title from the name of a small town in Alabama, which became the breeding ground for some of the most defining American music of the twentieth century. Director Greg Camalier tells the story of the town and its iconic music studios, and he enlists the help of a ridiculously impressive line-up of talking heads to help him do so.
Through a combination of fresh interviews and archive footage, we hear from the likes of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Alicia Keys, Steve Winwood and Wilson Pickett, to name but a few. Bizarrely, though, we’re introduced to the film by a voiceover from none other than Bono, and it’s particularly bizarre because not only do U2 never feature in the Muscle Shoals story presented in the film, but it also appears they never even recorded there.
Regardless, Bono lays on the mysticism thick. There’s a suggestion that maybe the musical magic emanating from the town has something to do with the nearby Tennessee river. “The songs came out of the mud,”” suggests Bono, as the film attempts to grab onto some higher reason for such an unlikely place to become the birthplace of this iconic music. As the film (wisely) moves away from those kinds of musings, it becomes clear that it was more a case of the right people being around at the right time.
Chief amongst those is Rick Hall, a local man with a tragic backstory who founded FAME studios in the town and whose passion and drive infected those around him. A fascinating character to build the doc around, Hall was then responsible for recruiting a group of white studio players (known as The Swampers) who became some of the worlds’ best and most in-demand soul musicians. Collectively, Hall and The Swampers built the reputation of the studio. Turns out there was nothing in the water (or the mud, Bono) after all, they’re the reason that artists sought out Muscle Shoals to record.
As we hear and see the famous musicians come and go throughout the film, there’s an amazing story to be told about each. It’s one fascinating anecdote after another, and even if they don’t always hang together all that well, they remain essential. In fact, you get the impression that there’s a great mini-series to be told about the town and its studios, because all too often the central narrative of Hall and his studio is lost as we’re engrossed in another tale about one of the studio players or one of the bands that played there.
A cherry-on-top bonus is the music playing throughout. After leaving the film you’ll be compelled to boot up Spotify and listen to Wilson Pickett’s Hey Jude again, or reexamine The Rolling Stones’ Brown Sugar for that Muscle Shoals influence, and of course cue up Lynrd Skynrd’s Sweet Home Alabama to hear the town and The Swampers directly referenced one again. It may be unfocused at times, but there’s enough to see and hear in Muscle Shoals to have you yearning for even more.