Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Hot Docs 2013 Film Review - Muscle Shoals

There's something in that mud declares Bono in the opening interview of Muscle Shoals. The area hits musicians in the gut to drag out songs anchored by deep base guitar and base drums. As Bono speaks of the region Director Greg Camalier switches to a shot of the Tennessee River that runs through the town followed by a view of the deep rich thick forests and woods in the area.  Chalked full of just most  major artists in the U.S from the early 60's through the mid 70's plus a few A listers from across the pond. Muscle Shoals was a destination that the leading acts of the day felt that they had to get to and record music. As one major act left the next one landed to take their place.  It's a place that's all about the music, musicians are left alone its pretty quiet and hard to be distracted. The bands travelled from the studio to the hotel and could focus on their craft.

So how does a sleepy Alabama outpost become a must for Musicians ranging from Wilson Pickett to Aretha Franklin to the Rolling Stones? The Muscle Shoals Sound is the vision of producer Rick Hall the founder of FAME Recording Studios. Hall opened the studio and recruited local musicians who were playing around town or just fresh from doing high school or square dances to form the Fame Rhythm Section. It was Hall's idea to mike the base drum separately which had never been done before.  Hall's life story is full of personal tragedy it appears that he put the tragedy's aside and focused on the music and the studio gaining the reputation as a legendary taskmaster that would push for that perfect sound. He couldn't  always articulate what he wanted but knew when he heard it and if it took 40 attempts to get there then thats what they did.

The first international hit artist for Fame Studios was Percy Sledge. Percy was from nearby Leighton, Alabama and had picked cotton in the fields and worked as an orderly. He came into the studio and began to sing as he had always done in the field the sessions at Fame let to When a Man Loves a Woman.  Sledge was followed by Wilson Pickett then Aretha Franklin a new Atlantic Artist who was sent to Muscle Shoals to work with Hall due to his deal with the label. The resulting sessions led to I'd Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You) and eventually the Fame Rhythm Section also known as the Swampers headed to New York to finish her album backing Franklin on one of the most classic soul albums of the 60's that included her biggest hit Respect.

The dynamic in the studio was polar opposite to the reality of the time. Alabama is the State where Governor George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door and black people had to address white citizens as Mr. and Mrs. In the Fame studio none of that existed. Everyone worked together equally to get to the music leading to a white rhythm section that played on many of the biggest soul records from the mid 60's through the mid 70's.

The essence of the film are the songs themselves and the old footage and photos from the recording sessions.  The piece is full of classic music: Wilson Picket's Land of a 1000 Dances and Mustang Sally, the Rolling Stones Wild Horses and Brown Sugar plus The Staple Singers I'll Take You There to name a few. Not to be missed is The Wilson Pickett / Duane Allman impromptu version of Hey Jude that Rick Hall labeled the start of Southern Rock due to Dwayne Allman's slide guitar work on the track.

Muscle Shoals is joyful ride that will delight the senses. Beautifully shot with the blues of the Tennessee river, the browns of the swamp and the mud plus the lush greens of the forest and hills surrounding the town. As the line goes from Sweet Home AlabamaNow Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers/And they've been known to pick a song or two.  Audience Members will be keeping beat to the music throughout the film and leave the theatre singing or humming one or two of the many legendary songs.

**** out of 4.

Muscle Shoals | Greg Camalier | U.S.A. | 2013|111 Minutes.

2013 Hot Docs Film Festival.

Tags: Soul Music, Alabama, Muscle Shoals Sound, Biography, Southern Rock, Music Industry Politics.

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