Rhythm and blues and soul had three great axes in the ’60s and early ’70s. Two were major cities associated with a single, much-celebrated label: Detroit and Motown, Memphis and Stax. The third was a small town in Alabama, Muscle Shoals. Artists from many labels made the trek to record at Rick Hall’s FAME Studios or, later, Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. The latter was founded by the now-legendary backup musicians (Roger Hawkins, Barry Beckett, Jimmy Johnson, David Hood) who had worked at FAME.
Those musicians were known as the Swampers. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” made that name familiar to millions: “Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers/And they’ve been known to pick a song or two.” By then, Muscle Shoals had become as much of a mecca for rockers as R&B and soul artists. During the ’70s, as many as 50 albums a year were being recorded there.
The Rolling Stones recorded “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” in Muscle Shoals. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are among the many talking heads who appear in “Muscle Shoals,” Greg “Freddy” Camalier’s alternately maddening and magnificent documentary. It’s maddening because of Camalier’s many arty touches (slo-mo, high-speed, postcard-pretty pictures of farmland and the Tennessee River, you name it), and magnificent because of the music and getting to hear from the men and women who made it.
The dominant figure in the documentary is Hall. With his handlebar mustache and prickly manner, he comes across as a bit overbearing. He’s earned the right. It’s not just the music he’s had a hand in making, but also a Job-rivaling personal history. His younger brother, wife, and father all died in accidents, and his mother turned to prostitution after the brother’s death. “I always felt my life depended on every record,” Hall says. You can hear that in the music.
Maybe the biggest problem with “Muscle Shoals” is that it doesn’t dig deeper into something even more miraculous than the music. The Swampers are all white, as is Hall. These white country boys provided the gutbucket foundation for some of the best music ever recorded by the likes of Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, and Etta James. “It’s been one of the anomalies, I think, of the era,” muses the late Jerry Wexler, of Atlantic Records, “that Aretha’s greatest work came in a studio full of Caucasian musicians. How do you figure it?”
The first piece of music on the soundtrack is Pickett’s “Land of a Thousand Dances.” Pickett, who died in 2006, comes close to stealing the show. He has personality to burn. Also on hand is a regal Aretha (calling her “Franklin” would be like calling Queen Elizabeth “Windsor”). Bono shows up and comes across as a major blowhard — “It’s like the songs came out of the mud,” he announces – albeit his heart is in the right place. Alicia Keys is also pretty superfluous.
It’s the old guys who come across best, and it’s their music you want to hear – and hear – and hear. “You had to know there was something magic in Muscle Shoals,” says one of them, Clarence Carter (of “Slip Away” and “Patches” fame). Yes, you do, and when Carter and his peers are talking — and especially when they’re singing — “Muscle Shoals” is more magical than any two Harry Potter movies put together.