Never has a town so little been responsible for such a big sound. The story of Muscle Shoals, Ala., a rural burg whose name signifies a swampy R&B and southern rock sound, plays out in “Muscle Shoals,” a music documentary that opens Friday (27).
Among the artists who recorded legendary sides at FAME Studios and its rival, Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, were Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, The Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynrd, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Otis Redding, Rod Stewart, Elton John, Eric Clapton, and The Allman Brothers. Many of them are on hand to talk about their experiences in Alabama, as well as such talking heads as Bono, Alicia Keys, Jimmy Cliff, and Steve Winwood.
The movie centers on Rick Hall, the conflicted, troubled founder of FAME Studios. He and his brother grew up “like animals” in abject poverty in Alabama (his little brother later dies after falling in a pot of scalding water and his mother, in her grief, abandons him and becomes a prostitute). “I wanted to be somebody,” he says. And he certainly succeeds. After an initial falling out with some business partners (the beginning of a pattern), and his new wife dying in a car accident, driven by vengeance and bitterness Hall launches FAME and wills it to succeed. Luckily, he has an ear for talent and before long, he and his artists are creating magic, whether it’s Percy Sledge, a former hospital orderly, recording “When A Man Loves A Woman” or Arthur Alexander with “You Better Move On.”
After FAME’s initial success, Atlantic Records co-founder/legendary producer Jerry Wexler decides to start recording at FAME, following a spat with Memphis’s Stax Studios. Perhaps unintentionally, the film makes a good case for how many magical moments happened simply because feuding partners were too egotistical to apologize and the principals would rather haul up and move to another city or start another company rather than say “I’m sorry.” Wexler brings Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin to FAME. The footage of Franklin in the studio, as well as much of the other vintage footage from the ‘60s and ’70, helps make the movie. Watching her surrounded by some of the most amazing studio musicians ever collected— Spooner Oldham, Roger Hawkins, Dan Penn, Barry Beckett— as they rework “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You)” is to witness a song being pulled out of the ether in all its majesty and glory.
But Hall and Wexler have a fight (are you sensing a theme yet?) and Wexler yanks Franklin back to New York and takes the fabled studio musicians with him as they record Franklin’s Atlantic debut, which also included a little song called “Respect.”
And so it goes as the film chronicles Hall and his battling of his demons as various tragedies, some of his own doing, come in and out of his life (the dude has Shakespearean-level bad luck), while it also portrays him and the studio musicians, all white, as trailblazers during the civil rights movement. They worked with black artists while segregation was in full force (studio scenes are juxtaposed against Gov. George Wallace vowing to keep black students out of schools) with no regard for anything other than talent. They were proud brothers in arms.
The movie does its best to cultivate an air of mythology about Muscle Shoals, including invoking Native American legend, as a way to explain how it became such a vaunted musical hotspot. Or as the imminently quotable Bono says, the music “seems to come out of the river; out of the mud.” Clarence Carter, who cut most of his hits at FAME, including “Patches,” simply says, “Every time someone came to Muscle Shoals, they came out with a hit record.” What doesn’t work so well is director Greg “Freddy” Camalier’s efforts to tie in Hellen Keller, who was from Alabama, and her ability to communicate, though deaf and dumb, with Muscle Shoals’ mysticism.
It seems inevitable that the studio musicians, collectively known as the Swampers, leave Hall to start their own studio, Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, taking with them some pretty choice talent. “It was war, total war,” Hall says. Through much of the ‘70s, MSSS captured the bigger names, plus Hall misses the mark on the Allman Brothers. “I just didn’t hear it,” he admits, leaving them to go to MSSS, where Lynyrd Skyrnd also recorded its legendary album. (Any fan of “Sweet Home Alabama” knows the line “Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers/And they’ve been known to pick a song or two”).
One of MSSS’ biggest moments is when the Rolling Stones record “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar” there instead of cutting in France, as they normally did. To see them in their youth, recording two now classics, alone make the movie worthwhile. Looking back, Keith Richards muses, “Those sessions are as vital to me as any I’ve ever done.”
The movie unspools as artists come and go and the studios’ fortunes rise and fall, with both of their heydays ending by the ‘80s. The stories are the stuff of legend when it comes to fighting and feuding, but the real star is the music. A staggering amount of classic hits came out of those two studios, despite all the chaos, and the tale of two studios is told is such a way to draw any lover of music in.
Unlike some movie docs that focus only on one subject, "Muscle Shoals" covers such a wide array of music and artists that like "Twenty Feet From Stardom," it will appeal to anyone with a song in their heart or anyone who wants to root for the underdog.