There’s a lot of talk about “magic” in Muscle Shoals, a documentary about the influentially groundbreaking music that was produced in a small Southern city in Alabama.
It’s understandable as to why one would think “magic” was in the air during recording sessions with such artists as Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and The Rolling Stones. There was an essence that lingered within the walls of studios FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound that made musical stars align. Once the musicians started shooting around material and instrumental accompaniment, everything seemed to click instantly and tracks were laid out faster than you can say “Brown Sugar”.
The musicians in Muscle Shoals have a cohesive handling of soul and funk. The most perplexing thing about these strengths was that these deep emotions were provided by a troupe of white men who an interviewee describes as “people who would bag your groceries at the store next door”.
During times of segregation, Muscle Shoals was a place where musicians of any colour could call home free. No one would judge or treat anyone differently. The only focus was on creating the next hit record.
Director Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier goes a long way in his doc without explaining what made Muscle Shoals so magical. That’s certainly not a bad directorial decision. Movie goers witness the unfolding of a hit song. We see the lightbulbs appear over everyone’s head through vintage video and photographs as the prominent track plays overtop of what we’re seeing.
‘Freddy’ does offer speculations regarding why great music was constantly being “cut” in this humble homestead. We see that a non-industrialized setting adds a lot of artistic freedom to the thought process and how the inspiration of Helen Keller’s story (who was also brought up in Muscle Shoals) helped ignite creative motives.
Like the music featured in Muscle Shoals, the documentary is very well produced. It’s led by a director who loves the subject at hand while also knowing how to make the presentation delectable to the eyes and ears.
The documentary has all sorts of famous faces giving terrific intimate interviews, while also searching through the studios’ past through its colourful characters.
Besides the music, the main star is music producer Rick Hall. People back-in-the-day who doubted a white man’s ability to be soulful will be thinking twice once they hear Hall’s life. Rick Hall has many great successes in the music industry, but has also lived through heartaches and pain. As we see more of Rick, movie goers have a clearer vision of how Hall sees the world; and, how those viewpoints can come out through his producing.
Muscle Shoals has a timeline it follows, but lives its life through stories from band members and musicians. The tellers know exactly how to make each story its own standout memory through their own distinct dialogue. They hit all sorts of emotional chords. A story about discovering Lynyrd Skynyrd and trying to find their audience is very interesting.
If there’s one minor thing in Muscle Shoals that I would change, it would be how most of the background songs are ended. A lot of the tracks end abruptly to create a record scratch effect or to emphasize a fact that wows or shocks the audience. A music teacher of mine once said, “music should always fade out and not be stopped abruptly”. I agreed with him then, and I still do now.
I found the quick cutoffs brought me out of the movie for a moment. It’s sort of like that polarizing surprise of walking through a dark room and having someone slam on the lights just as your eyes are starting to adjust.
Muscle Shoals is a joy and has a lot to give. You’ll be mesmerized with how everything has been pieced together by the “magic” Muscle Shoals inhabits right on through to the closing number performed by the talented Alicia Keys. If you’re a fan of music or have ever listened to music, Muscle Shoals is a must-watch.