When I was growing up, “Brown Sugar” was my favorite song by The Rolling Stones. Part of the reason was exposure – Sticky Fingers was one of the few albums my parents had by the Stones, and I liked the novelty of its zipper album cover – but it had something else I couldn’t quite articulate. Years later I learned that the band traveled to Alabama for the album’s distorted, groovy sound, yet I had no idea that particular area of the South had such a rich musical history. The documentary Muscle Shoals uncovers how one small town is uniquely responsible for so much of America’s best pop music. There are fascinating anecdotes and warmhearted memories from a progressive workplace, yet it spins its wheels when its talking heads navel-gaze a little too much.
For a documentary that’s about joyously noisy soul music, Muscle Shoals begins with a surprising amount of tranquility. Director Greg Camalier films several outdoor vistas around the town of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where the Tennessee river is a dominant presence. Then there’s the unmistakable voice of Bono, who probably cannot sustain a normal conversation about this point, and he opines about how landscape bleeds into culture. Other musicians and engineers try to connect the location with the sound, which indeed sounds richer and soulful than its contemporaries.
The man responsible is Rick Hall, the son of a farmer who founded FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals. A prolific musician and engineer, Hall attracted a group of inexperienced young session players who happened to have incredible chemistry together. Together they recorded hits like Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1000 Dances” and Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You.” Hall thought the hits would continue, but then he had feuds with Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records as well as his now-seasoned session musicians, who would later form their own studio. Despite this long-brewing drama, Muscles Shoals continued to attract rock musicians, soul musicians, and everything in between.
What’s most remarkable about Muscle Shoals is the racial integration of its workforce. FAME’s rhythm section, nicknamed The Swampers, were mostly white yet they recorded music for black artists. In interviews, Pickett and Franklin both express their initial disbelief that these nerdy looking dudes were capable of soul, yet their talent is unmistakable. Despite the split between Hall and Wexler, The Swampers headed to New York to finish work on Aretha’s Atlantic debut (let that sink in: the session musicians for “Respect” were all white men). But this is Alabama in the sixties, so there are also stories about the difficulty of an integrated studio. Pickett recounted how they would avoid the town since he worried about attracting too much negative attention, and yet the documentary charts progress. Its greatest reward is how the rest of the country would eventually catch up to FAME, where race just wasn’t a big deal.
The documentary focuses more on Hall than the rest of its subjects. He had a difficult early childhood – his little brother and first wife died prematurely – and he is quick to note that failure motivated him more than anything else. It’s a terrific, if predictable “rags to riches” story, and is Camalier is wise to pepper the documentary with stories about recording specific songs, as well as broader points about the studios’ prolific output. Muscle Shoals is long for a documentary, and that’s because Camalier pads out his traditional approach to documentary with talking heads that are on the periphery of the action.
Bono is brought out like a something between a messiah and a historian, and his points are all distracting. Alicia Keys looks backward without much insight (she records a song in FAME studio for the finale, and it feels like a foregone conclusion). Camalier has amazing material to work with, and his problem is that he does not trust it more. There are already famous names here – Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are chief among them, and Gregg Allman has great stories about his deceased brother – so the audience would benefit from more behind-the-scenes details instead of another comment about how the river influences the music.
My high school biology teacher used to be a sound engineer. He mentioned this matter-of-factly, and one day I stayed after class to hear stories about the musicians he recorded (I’ll never look at Billy Joel the same way again). These details are fascinating because the creation of music is such an elusive process: even Hall cannot articulate what he wants to hear where he demands yet another take from his musicians. But engineers and session players have a better chance to articulate their process more than celebrities who weren’t even there. Muscle Shoals works best when it uses the studio is a prism for mid-twentieth century American history, and its weakest when it tries to mythologize the studio space. It should go without saying, but the people who were there are capable of the strongest storytelling. As the recording of “Respect” demonstrates, it does not matter if they’re average-looking white dudes.