Published Apr 22, 2013Taking a spiritual approach to detailing the vital role two recording studios played in the evolution of soul and rock music production, Muscle Shoals is a fascinating document that sometimes sags under the weight of meaty-pawed myth building.
Between fawning reminiscences from the likes of Aretha Franklin, Jimmy Cliff, Bono, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Percy Sledge—and pornographic nature shots of the scenery around Muscle Shoals, Alabama—the land itself is held up as a place of significance and power. To reinforce this reverence, in an aside, a local woman and one time Grateful Dead backup singer shares an old native folktale about a musical spirit living in the Tennessee river, which the titular town is settled beside.
Whether you want to attribute it to animism or the random product of circumstance, audio magic was definitely created in that small southern town and the relevance of the music community that sprang up in it to the progress of race relations in the USA is inarguably significant.
A great many of the key players in the development of this unique scene show up to lend first-hand accounts to support and flesh-out scenarios constructed from a wealth of archival footage.
The founder of the original studio that gave birth to the "Muscle Shoals" sound, Rick Hall, takes the role of lead subject. An intelligent straight shooter, he's a great source of information, if not the most charming guide down recollection alley.
While the background information gives the audience a greater sense of what shaped him into a man with the drive to be the type of intuitive perfectionist necessary to pump out pop hits brimming with both musical sophistication and that indefinable human spark, periodic scenes of Hall talking about the horrors of his childhood don't sit very comfortably with the celebratory tone of the rest of the picture, casting a macabre shadow over sections of this otherwise extremely enjoyable history lesson.
The anecdotes and shop talk from the session musicians who basically created the sound of classic soul funk (all white boys, by the way), and the artists they cut hits for should be ear gravy for anyone with an interest in the audio recording arts.
While it suffers from the same self-importance most of the music industry does, Muscle Shoals is essential viewing for music buffs. (Ear Goggles)