Muscle Shoals

"Muscle Shoals" explores the rich musical legacy of this small Alabama community. (Courtesy of PBS / April 20, 2014)

If you want to see a documentary made with passion and guaranteed to rock your soul at least two or three times before the final credits roll, don’t miss “Muscle Shoals” at 9 tonight on WETA-TV (Channel 22), Washington’s PBS outlet.

The film is probably 15-30 minutes longer than it needs to be, but that’s because first-time director-producer Greg “Freddy” Camalier reaches so high and tries to communicate so much of what is clearly his love for the musical subculture of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, that created some of America’s greatest popular music in the 1960s, ‘70’s and ‘80s.

Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally,” the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” Etta James’ “Tell Mama,” Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man the Way Love You,” the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome” – they were all recorded there by a strange and driven record producer named Rick Hall. 

And most of the principal players are in this film talking about the sessions, usually accompanied by videos of the sessions themselves. Where did they find some of those videos? It’s amazing stuff.

Just the present-day interviews are mind blowing. There’s Sledge talking about how he approached his first recording session ever, the one that resulted in “When a Man Loves a Woman,” just as he did when he sang in the field while picking cotton.

Meanwhile, the engineer of the session recounts how he had to keep wildly adjusting the volume on the board to try and get an acceptable level for what turned out to be one of the great R&B ballads of all time.

And there’s Gregg Allman remembering how his late brother, Duane, talked Pickett into covering the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” during a lunch break in a recording session that found Duane playing backup for the most widely known R&B singer the era this side of Otis Redding. Pickett and Allman had stayed back while everyone else went into town because they didn’t like the looks they got from regulars at the restaurants in the small Alabama town.

Wait until you hear the tape of that recording of “Hey Jude” and the unbelievable, soaring, fluid guitar fills played by Duane Allman. And that’s followed by one of the Swampers describing Duane Allman’s guitar work on “Hey Jude” as the birth of Southern Rock.

Who are the Swampers?

That’s one of the most remarkable story lines in this film, which is packed with them. 

The Swampers were the studio band Hall put together at his FAME Studios. Four young white guys from rural Alabama who had worked in rock bands that played frat parties at the University of Alabama, as well as sock hops and square dances in around Muscle Shoals.

Barry Beckett (keyboards), David Hood (bass), Roger Hawkins (drums) and Jimmy Johnson (guitar) – they are the players on so many of the funkiest R&B hits of the 1960s and ‘70s. They are all over the film playing, talking performing on video of sessions filmed in the 1960s.

“We just didn’t expect them to be as funky as greasy (pronounced greezy) as they were,” Aretha Franklin says in the film.

Jerry Wexler, the legendary Atlantic Records producer who signed Franklin after CBS Records dropped her, fell in love with the Swampers, particularly Hawkins’ drumming, and brought many of his major singers down from New York to record – until a racial incident during a session involving Franklin’s African-American husband and a white trumpet player wound up later that night with Hall and the singer’s husband trying to throw each other the fourth floor balcony of a nearby motel.

The story of the Swampers, with the complexities of race and music that it explores, is in its own right worth two hours of anyone’s time.

For the record, I spent twice that time this film. I sat down just to check some quotes on Saturday, and wound up watching it straight through again. And I was as transported out of my own time and place as I was the first time I watched.

As a critic, though, I kept wishing Camalier had an editor like HBO’s great Sheila Nevins to telescope the narrative and tighten the focus at the start of the film. I fear some viewers might tune out before the film gets them to the recording sessions.

That’s because Camalier makes a big, daring reach to try and explain why this little town by the banks of the Tennessee River produced such great music. He answers it in part with a Native American myth of a spirit living in the river – the spirit of a young woman who sang to the tribes nearby.

I like the mythology of it, but Camalier also dives too deep into the strange history of Hall – a history of horrible tragedies, musical passion, feuds and fights.

Camalier is right to focus on Hall. He’s one of those uniquely American characters like the auto pioneer Henry Ford, the broadcasting pioneer David Sarnoff or another pop music pioneer who also had a little studio that created a big sound, Sam Phillips.

But you can’t have it all: the mythology, a biography of Hall and the history of the transcendent sounds created in the studios of Muscle Shoals. I would have asked him to edit his material down to a film that focuses more on the music and less on some of the details of Hall’s past – although, I fully agree that Hall is a great, great story.

I only tell you this, so that you don’t tune out in short-attention-span-TV-Land before Camalier gets you to the music.

The stories of the singing river and Hall are good stuff. The story of the music created at Muscle Shoals is transcendent.

“Muscle Shoals” airs at 9 tonight on WETA-TV (Channel 26).

Why is a Baltimore critic telling you to watch WETA and not MPT, because MPT is not carrying this film until 10 p.m. April 27 on MPT2.

That choice by Maryland’s PBS outlet on an extraordinary film like this is another column for another day.


CORRECTION: An earlier version incorrectly spelled guitarist Jimmy Johnson's first name.