Modern pop music is, for better or worse, an unstoppable monster. It thunders on and on: an accelerating, extrapolating force, always expanding and erupting in every direction at once. Each genre splinters into a thousand sub-genres, with each sub-genre birthing a thousand niches of its own. But every new sound is built on the foundation of what went before, each taking something from generations passed. Purists and old fogies alike may cry foul at what they see as new artists engaging in cynical and lazy cultural appropriation, but they forget: every action causes an equal and opposite reaction. Because this process of using the old to add to the new, it all drives interest back to the source of it all. Music fans, historians and musicians alike become interested in the origins of musical movements, pursuing the truth of where this sound or that sound first appeared. Mythology arises, creating narratives that place certain people, places and events at the heart of an entire sound.
Each genre has its own mythical figures, its own birthplaces, its own battlegrounds. How true any of it is, well, that’s often hard to know anymore: this mythology is itself a trade now, and browsing any music store or bookshop shows no end of biographies and anthologies, each seeking to tell the true story of an entire genre. Why, if you believe all of this, you’d think the entire roster of British punk bands attended the Sex Pistols’ 1976 gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester, or that 6 million people attended Woodstock 1970. Some stories, however, are so incredible they can only be true. Muscle Shoals (2013) is one of them.
The ˜Muscle Shoals sound’ is a term used to refer to a particular era in the history of modern music, in which a seemingly endless stream of soul, blues and country hits came out of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, during the 1950s and 1960s. A small town sitting alongside the Tennesee river, Muscle Shoals was home to FAME studios, and later The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio “ two recording studios that cut some of the greatest hits of the 20th century. From Aretha Franklin and Etta James to Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and even the Rolling Stones, the two studios brought the best out of a mix of established and soon-to-be stars. Greg ˜Freddy’Camilier’s documentary seeks to analyse exactly what it was about the studios “and Muscle Shoals itself “ that left such a remarkable impact upon the mythology of music as we know it.
Camilier’s film takes its visuals mostly from archive footage and photographs, but interspersing these with stunning landscape shots of Muscle Shoals’ surroundings “ all creeks and bays, pebble beaches and wetlands. This lends an otherworldly, fairytale quality to the town, creating a sense of a truly special place in time. An impressively diverse cast of talking heads are used to direct the narrative as well as remind us of the historical impact of the place. Stars from Aretha Franklin and Percy Sledge to Alicia Keys and Bono all appear on screen to share their own perspectives of the Muscle Shoals legend. But Muscle Shoals‘ real coup is to allow much of the story to be told first-hand from the key players. Central to this is the film’s focus on Rick Hall, the engaging “ if somewhat enigmatic “ producer and founder of FAME Studios. Hall exudes a quiet, restrained dignity in his recollections, as though he has no need for hyperbole due to his incredible achievements. And quite rightly too “ some of the most engaging archive footage on show involves that of a young Hall working the mixing desks for a range of stars, as the older man admits in the voice-over to his inner terror at the responsibility he had to the artists. As the film progresses, it reveals that this softly-spoken, stoic man has had a far more traumatic life than we could possibly imagine. Hall’s clear work ethic and single-mindedness is so awe-inspiring, however, that things never lurch into sob-story territory. This is instead a man who simply got on with being the best that he could be, resulting in some of the most jaw-droppingly good records ever made.
As we learn of the founding and immediate success of Hall’s FAME studios, the film introduces the key element to the ˜Muscle Shoals sound’: its in-house rhythm section. Also known as The Swampers, this was a house band of incredibly talented young musicians who played backing for every track recorded at the studio. The unusual aspect, for a studio that was mostly recording up-and-coming black artists, was that this band was entirely white. At a time when segregation and everyday racism was practically the norm in America (Wilson Pickett at one point recalls seeing black cotton-pickers within sight of the studio), this multiracial environment seems almost a remarkable anomaly. Yet, the film paints a picture of complete harmony, with white and black artists working together for the good of the music, with none of the musicians recalling any issues whatsoever. Indeed, the film does not dwell too long on the race discussion, avoiding any attempt to frame the narrative around it. Just like the artists at the studio, the film seeks to direct the most attention towards the music itself.
When the music is given centre-stage, this is when Muscle Shoals truly comes into its own. These are the moments that the ˜Muscle Shoals sound’ is given full room to breathe, with Camilier encouraging us to bask in the gorgeous acoustics of the recordings, to pick out the wildly creative drum work, the guitar licks, the extraordinary vocal performances. There are no greater moments in this film than when it invites the audience to sit back and take in the hair-raising dynamics of Percy Sledge’s voice, the raw character of Etta James, or the uncontainable energy of Wilson Pickett, as the Swampers play dutifully in the background. So joyous and celebratory is Muscle Shoals of the music, most audience members will surely find themselves seeking out any of these songs they do not already own.
Muscle Shoals is essentially an unashamed piece of mythologising and hero-worshipping: of that there is no doubt. It makes no attempt to be anything else, but when the enthusiasm for its subject matter is so infectious, when the cast of musicians, producers and engineers are so engaging and delightful, and when the music is presented with such raw passion and energy, it is hard not be completely engrossed by it. It’s tempting to say that this is a film about triumph over adversity, or about artistic vision overcoming social conventions, or about the wild youthful energy of creativity. Perhaps it is all of these things. Perhaps it is none. The beauty of good music is that everyone can have a different thing they love about it. Muscle Shoals as a film feels much the same. The incredible songs fit alongside a strong narrative, beautiful visuals and fascinating character studies. The result is a documentary of extraordinary heart and passion, and a definite must for any music fan’s collection.