The terrific documentary “Muscle Shoals” warmly spotlights America’s legendary music recording locale, the Tennessee River town of Muscle Shoals, Ala. Director Greg “Freddy” Camalier skillfully, unhurriedly unfurls a wealth of classic music-biz tales as told by a who’s who of R&B;, soul and rock ‘n’ roll royalty and various other players and purveyors.
Driving this immersive chronicle is musician-producer Rick Hall, a northwest Alabama native who overcame dirt-poor beginnings and family trauma to establish, in 1960, Muscle Shoals’ FAME Studios. It was there that self-described “cracker” Hall would record early hits by such seminal African American artists as Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and Percy Sledge (each interviewed here) while racial segregation roiled the south.
Hall and his (also white) rhythm section, a house band that became known as the Swampers, took a then-revolutionary, colorblind approach to their work for the common good of the music. In return, the many FAME-generated, 1960s chartbusters helped positively shift ideas about race.
The film then traces how, in 1969, the four founding Swampers defected to open their own nearby studio, Muscle Shoals Sound, where a starry array of performers — including Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Steve Winwood and Jimmy Cliff, who all also weigh in here — would lay down a bonanza of celebrated tracks.
Further Muscle Shoals-related stories involving Lynyrd Skynyrd (whose “Sweet Home Alabama” lyrics famously referenced Muscle Shoals and the Swampers), the Allman Brothers, Bob Seger and countless other artists are featured as well, along with fine archival footage and photos and, of course, rousing cuts from the staggering list of locally produced hits.
Candid interviews with long-driven, “imperfect perfectionist” Hall and surviving Swampers Roger Hawkins, Jimmy Johnson and David Hood, plus chats with latter-day superstars Bono and Alicia Keys (she beautifully performs the film’s closing number) add much to this evocative, soulful, enormously entertaining tribute.
MPAA rating: PG for thematic elements, language, smoking and brief partial nudity.
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.
Playing: At Landmark’s Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles.
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