Even if you're old enough to have experienced the '60s (and lucky enough to still have the brain cells to remember them), it's likely that the name “Muscle Shoals” doesn't evoke much. If you religiously read Rolling Stone in those days, it may ring a bell. But if you were the type who excitedly read the liner notes or credits on your records, Muscle Shoals instantly signified a variety of deep, deep Southern soul music.
As documented in “Muscle Shoals” — a new documentary from Greg “Freddy” Camalier — this Alabama town's stats may not outdo Detroit (Motown), New York (Atlantic), Memphis (Stax/Volt) and other big cities. But its per capita average is stratospheric. Those cities — as well as New Orleans, Philadelphia, Chicago, Nashville, and others — had the advantage of a thriving, highly competitive music scene, while Muscle Shoals was a sleepy town of less than12,000 souls.
Just to get you oriented as to what we're talking about, such enduring tracks as Aretha Franklin's “Respect,” Percy Sledge's “When a Man Loves a Woman,” and Wilson Pickett's “Mustang Sally” were all Muscle Shoals productions, using Fame Studio's amazing house band.
Most of the film centers on Rick Hall, cofounder and owner of the studio, and engineer and often producer of its hits. The camera follows him around town, with photos, original footage of the studio at work, and stock footage accompanying his reminiscences and those of the band members and visiting artists. This is further intercut with the outsiders trying to analyze just why the studio is so great, what gives it its special sound, and why they felt compelled to work there. The roster includes not just Franklin, Sledge, and Pickett, but also Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bono, Gregg Allman, Etta James, Steve Winwood, Alicia Keys and the late Jerry Wexler.
One obvious curiosity of the Fame story is that the Swampers — the house band during most of the '60s — were all white. Pickett and others speak amusingly about walking in and finding that these brilliant soul brothers were not in fact “brothers,” but a bunch of nerdy white boys. Franklin talks of her initial uneasiness with the seemingly clean-cut guys before she realized that “these cats are really greasy.”
Hall is thin and shambling — in a fictional feature he would be played by Harry Dean Stanton — and he talks, often with a little hesitation, about his impoverished upbringing. After his brother died in a particularly gruesome way, the family fell apart; mom moved out and eventually became a prostitute. He has no doubt that his father's steadfastness in raising him made him successful, and so demanding that things were not always smooth at Fame.
As great as the chemistry mostly was, in 1969 the Swampers left Fame to start their own studio across town; Hall, not surprisingly, felt betrayed, particularly because the move was backed by Wexler, with whom he had had a bitter falling out.
Because the documentary is about Muscle Shoals, not just Fame Studio, it loses focus in the final third, with the time being split between Hall and the band members. The forward motion is also hurt when Camalier deals with the rise of Lynyrd Skynyrd and southern rock. It would have been impossible to exclude them, but I could live a long happy life without ever hearing “Free Bird” again.
Hall's stories give some emotional context to “Muscle Shoals,” but it's hard to compete with the music. We never hear songs all the way through, but we don't have to: So integrated into our lives are these recordings that the opening notes immediately summon up our memories of the rest of the tunes. In short, you may not remember the '60s in words, but you can still dance to it.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).