Friday, October 4, 2013

Review: Muscle Shoals - a Documentary

Muscle Shoals

Documentary by Greg "Freddy" Camalier

On at TIFF Bell Lightbox

Rating 4/5
More than once in Greg "Freddy" Camalier’s glorious musical doc, we’re told that the sound in the world’s best known recording studio comes from the nearby Tennessee River and the mud.   That’s what they say about the music from Muscle Shoals.   Aretha Franklin calls it “greasy” and music boss Rick Hall calls it “sonorous”. 
In the fifties, Muscle Shoals was a tiny, sparsely populated watering hole in rural Alabama where poverty, racism and unemployment was rampant.  And Rick Hall turned it onto an internationally renowned mecca for musicians, where they could make music and relax in a place where no one knew them.
Hall grew up motherless and dirt poor in a shack in the woods outside Muscle Shoals.  He swore he’d better himself and after coming to grips with immense personal tragedy, built Fame Recording Studios with the hope of success that would make his father proud. 
Hall’s house band The Swampers had the ability to adjust their music to any performer and yet remain uniquely individual.  Together they groomed new acts like Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, and Etta James.  Aretha Franklin found her true musical groove at Muscle Shoals and recorded Respect.  The studio clicked and Hall’s dream came true. 
Soon the big acts showed up.  The Stones and the Beatles worked there two weeks apart.  Hall couldn’t lose.  A hugely disproportionate number of songs recorded at Fame became number one hits worldwide like Respect, Midnight Hour, Steal Away, Tell Mama, Brown Sugar, When a Man Loves a Woman, Night Moves, Free Bird -  too many to name.
Another interesting aspect of the Muscle Shoals experience was its colour blindness which was especially unusual in the segregated Alabama of the fifties and sixties.  The Swampers, who were white, went out of their way to eat in segregated restaurants with black artists.  Apparently the next hurdle was the arrival of Duane Allman, a hippy, which was even more aggravating to the locals. 
Eventually The Swampers left Hall and opened Muscle Shoals, their own recording studio just across town, and soon stars were knocking on their doors.   A stunning, long list of clients passed through the doors of Fame and Muscle Shoals - Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Etta James, Little Richard, Wilson Pickett, the Beatles, Lynrd Skynrd, Willy Nelson, Paul Anka, Bono, Jimmy Cliff, Tommy Roe, The Osmonds, Jerry Reed, the Gatlins, Leon Russell, Cher, Liza Minnelli, Lou Rawls, Steve Winwood and Traffic and Bob Marley.

The film is juicy, gossipy, informative, moving and a hell of story.  Hall and the Swampers took incredible paths.  The characters and the bonds that were created in the fifties, like Jagger and Franklin encouraging each, are fascinating.  Muscle Shoals is a rich and heavily nostalgic treat for audiences of a certain age and an eye opener for later generation music and music history lovers. 

Interviews with many of the stars who recorded there Jagger, Bono, Pickett, Franklin, the Swampers, and many more give the film a highly personal edge.  The music is to die for.  Not sure about the river and the mud, but it’s a nice concept.

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