This has been a banner year for big-screen pop-music movies. 20 Feet from Stardom is probably the leader of the pack so far, but let’s not forget A Band Called Death, Sound City, The Sapphires, and Not Fade Away. Now comes Muscle Shoals, a documentary profile of that Alabama town where a generation of soul, rock, and pop performers recorded a remarkable string of hits imbued with a funky Southern sound that Aretha Franklin once described as “greasy.”
Rick Hall and his FAME studios are the main focus of Greg “Freddy” Camalier’s amiably hodgepodge doc. Beginning with Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On” in 1961, Hall’s recording studio and his house band, the Swampers, hosted everyone from Percy Sledge and Clarence Carter to Wilson Pickett, the Rolling Stones, Etta James, the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Seger, Steve Winwood, Jimmy Cliff, Candi Staton, and the Civil Wars. Along the way the opinionated Hall feuded with Atlantic Records chief Jerry Wexler and later with his own crew, who mutinied and set up a competing studio. So Muscle Shoals is really the story of more than one recording venue.
By some accounts Muscle Shoals’ signature R&B sound played a major hand in changing the racial attitudes of the South in Sixties and Seventies. The Swampers were white but played “black.” Most of them couldn’t read music. But their sound was so successful that none of that mattered.