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Film Review: 'Muscle Shoals' strength is in the music

October 18, 2013|By Andy Klein
  • Aretha Franklin in "Muscle Shoals," a Magnolia Pictures release.
Aretha Franklin in "Muscle Shoals," a Magnolia… (Courtesy of Magnolia…)

Even if you're old enough to have experienced the '60s (and lucky enough to still have the brain cells to remember them), it's likely that the name “Muscle Shoals” doesn't evoke much. If you religiously read Rolling Stone in those days, it may ring a bell. But if you were the type who excitedly read the liner notes or credits on your records, Muscle Shoals instantly signified a variety of deep, deep Southern soul music.

As documented in “Muscle Shoals” — a new documentary from Greg “Freddy” Camalier — this Alabama town's stats may not outdo Detroit (Motown), New York (Atlantic), Memphis (Stax/Volt) and other big cities. But its per capita average is stratospheric. Those cities — as well as New Orleans, Philadelphia, Chicago, Nashville, and others — had the advantage of a thriving, highly competitive music scene, while Muscle Shoals was a sleepy town of less than12,000 souls.

Just to get you oriented as to what we're talking about, such enduring tracks as Aretha Franklin's “Respect,” Percy Sledge's “When a Man Loves a Woman,” and Wilson Pickett's “Mustang Sally” were all Muscle Shoals productions, using Fame Studio's amazing house band.

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Most of the film centers on Rick Hall, cofounder and owner of the studio, and engineer and often producer of its hits. The camera follows him around town, with photos, original footage of the studio at work, and stock footage accompanying his reminiscences and those of the band members and visiting artists. This is further intercut with the outsiders trying to analyze just why the studio is so great, what gives it its special sound, and why they felt compelled to work there. The roster includes not just Franklin, Sledge, and Pickett, but also Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bono, Gregg Allman, Etta James, Steve Winwood, Alicia Keys and the late Jerry Wexler.

One obvious curiosity of the Fame story is that the Swampers — the house band during most of the '60s — were all white. Pickett and others speak amusingly about walking in and finding that these brilliant soul brothers were not in fact “brothers,” but a bunch of nerdy white boys. Franklin talks of her initial uneasiness with the seemingly clean-cut guys before she realized that “these cats are really greasy.”

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