Miami had its funky sunshine sound in the TK Records era. Barry Manilow rhapsodized over the brassy New York City Rhythm, and Southern California birthed country-rock.
But one soulful sound towered in the 1960s and ’70s. The music, fat-bottomed with prominent bass and drums, greasy, gritty and gutsy — I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You), When a Man Loves a Woman, You Better Move On — flowed out of a small Alabama town on the southern edge of the Tennessee River and worked its way into the fingers of a group of white session musicians who helped craft some of the greatest black contemporary music ever made.
Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, the Staple Singers and Clarence Carter called on the talents of these musicians. So did Paul Simon, who recorded Kodachrome there, and Jimmy Buffett, who sent his Coconut Telegraph from those parts. British rockers The Rolling Stones and Traffic also found their way to the region’s two competing studios, and Lynyrd Skynyrd paid homage to the musicians in a line from 1974’s Sweet Home Alabama: “Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers. And they’ve been known to pick a song or two.”
First-time director Greg “Freddy” Camalier pays loving attention to more than “a song or two” by opening his slightly overlong documentary about the Muscle Shoals sound with shots of the river’s crystal waters cascading over coal-colored stones, sundowns melting over a forest and fields of golden sunflowers. These shots are so beautifully framed they seem inspired by a Terrence Malick movie.
“Magic is the word that comes to mind when I think of Muscle Shoals,” says a blathering Bono, who appears in Muscle Shoals to pontificate about the music and race despite the film offering no evidence that U2’s electronically enhanced rock ever had roots in the soul and rootsy rock that issued from the Fame and Muscle Shoals studios.
“We felt the blood of it — that sound,” Bono says. Whatever.
Keith Richards is more convincing when he speaks of recording Brown Sugar and Wild Horses at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Separate reminiscences from Richards, Mick Jagger and sound engineers provide some of Muscle Shoals’ more amusing moments. The Stones recall alcohol and marijuana use; studio hands marvel at how drug- and alcohol-free the late ’60 Stones sessions were.
Bono can go on and on with his blustery statements about the music’s power and how it rose from the mud, but the sight of a young Richards, lost in reverie and mouthing the words he wrote for the country-rock tune Wild Horses, over a playback of Jagger singing the song, shows rather than tells. That simple image lets viewers feel the soul that lived here. Such great archival images — photo stills and movie footage — underline the revealing anecdotes and are among Muscle Shoals chief attributes.
Sledge, who grew up in Alabama and worked as a hospital orderly, recalls with a smile how he was “shaking like a leaf” when he first approached the studio to record his oft-covered When a Man Loves a Woman in 1966.
The film’s primary voice belongs to Fame recording studio founder Rick Hall, who put the white session musicians together to craft the signature sound that convinced visiting stars and the public that black musicians were the source of this soulful music. Hall recounts how his family “grew up like animals” in a home with no plumbing, and Camalier doesn’t shy away from depicting the harsh realities of Hall’s life. The segregation that existed in the deep South didn’t thrive within the walls of Fame or Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, but a bitter feud with Atlantic Records’ like-minded Jerry Wexler, who poached the Swampers after an Aretha Franklin session went awry, almost broke Hall.
Muscle Shoals, however, misses a few beats. Camalier should have had Hall, not Bono, weigh in on racial issues, such as the Confederate flag client band Lynyrd Skynyrd flew. At almost two hours, the film slips into redundancy. But with its plentiful hit songs, all still relevant and rich on the soundtrack, and Camalier’s craft behind the camera, Muscle Shoals will delight and inform music fans.
With: Rick Hall, Gregg Allman, Keith Richards, Percy Sledge, Clarence Carter, Bono, Jimmy Cliff, Aretha Franklin.
Director: Greg “Freddy” Camalier.
Producers: Stephen Badger, Greg Camalier.
A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 111 minutes. Adult themes, smoking, drinking. Playing in Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Wynwood.