Director: Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier
The story of Muscle Shoals is a story about how a town with a population of around 13,000 had a hand in creating some of the finest music in the world. It’s a story about the white rhythm section that everyone thought was black. It’s a story about how Paul Simon and The Rolling Stones chased that sound after hearing it on records by Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin and Percy Sledge. It’s a story about how the young Duane Allman made his name there. It’s a story about how there’s clearly something in the water – the water being the Tennessee River. It’s a story about so many of the greatest songs of our lifetime/s were pushed into place at either FAME Studios or Muscle Shoals Sound. It is a story about that Muscle Shoals sound.
But first-time director Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier also knows that it’s a story about Rick Hall, founder of FAME Studios; Hall knew what it was to grow up dirt-poor, the house he was raised in didn’t have a floor. He survived a childhood he compares with being raised like an animal and created a sound that was the antithesis – in every way – of Motown’s squeaky-clean, production-line pop. There, in Detroit, it was about black musicians making everything sound peachy white. Bright and just right. Down in Alabama it was about grit and soul and heart. And somehow Hall continued to overcome a startling – heartbreaking – set of personal tragedies to be the man that defined a sound – and era – of soul and funk and rhythm’n’blues.
The Muscle Shoals documentary – now on DVD, thanks to Madman in NZ – explains so much of the myth and drama around these key recordings; subtly hints at the fact that Hall and the legendary Swampers rhythm section – who would leave FAME to create their own studio – were custodians of a racially integrated melting pot of music. If the documentary doesn’t exactly drill down into the heart of the Civil Rights issues that’s not exactly its fault, there are other films to do that, what Muscle Shoals gives us is the heart behind all this wonderful music for the head and the hips.
And that it leaves just a little bit of the mystery – even through detailing some of the misery – is part of the film’s charm. That there’s something in the water is made clear by talking heads that include Jagger and Richards of the Stones, Clarence Carter and Candi Staton and even, groan, the There’s Wally! of rock docs Bono himself. There’s no need to spoil the magic by trying to explain it fully, by attempting to unearth the secrets, what this film does – which is its great strength – is it, pardon the pun, takes you there. It places you there in the sound, allows the sound to swirl all around. It keeps the secret around the magic, merely shines a little (well-deserved) light in the direction of this fable/fabled sound.