With all the considerable hype around contemporary music, from twitter to stylists to who did what to whom at an award ceremony, it would be easy to forget that at the heart of successful and timeless music there needs to be one vital element: it needs to have Soul. Director Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier’s beautiful new documentary Muscle Shoals takes us to a place where stunning music emanates from the landscape in a way that has never been replicated before or since.
Located in Alabama, alongside the Tennessee River – the “Singing River,” as Native Americans call it – Muscle Shoals seems like the sort of place that one would deliberately pass through in an attempt to arrive somewhere more interesting. However, under the driven guidance of FAME Studios founder Rick Hall, such musical royalty as Gregg Allman, Bono, Clarence Carter, Mick Jagger, Etta James, Alicia Keys, Keith Richards, Percy Sledge all plied their trade in this unusual setting.
Born into crushing poverty and faced with almost insurmountable tragedy, Hall brought together a hugely talented group of musicians to form house band The Swampers. In doing so he created the ‘Muscle Shoals sound’ which can be heard on such legendary tracks as Aretha Franklin’s I Never Loved a Man and Percy Sledge’s When a Man Loves a Woman. When listening to these sounds you envisage a group of super cool African-American musicians, but in fact, to this reviewers’ surprise, they are a rather ordinary looking group of white men who you probably would not give a second glance if you saw them in the local supermarket. However, ordinary is not what you could call the music, or, at the time, the idea of bringing black and white together against a background of racial unrest.
Camalier leads us through a story that involves poverty, confrontation, musical rebirths, racial segregation and, above all, respect. Deftly montaging archive, contemporary interviews and performances Muscle Shoals is not only a music lovers treat but also a fascinating study of what can be achieved against adversity when one has a burning passion.
Credit must also go to cinematographer Anthony Arendt who conjures up such a highly atmospheric portrait of the area that you can almost smell the swampland.
The film never manages to get to the bottom of why a small area like Muscle Shoals became to be such an integral part of musical history – perhaps nobody can – but then when you are listening to music this good, who the hell cares?
Muscle Shoals will be screening in UK cinemas until mid December, to find out where you can see this documentary please visit the film’s official website.