A music documentary about an Alabama town rich in musical history, from Aretha Franklin to Alicia Keys
Most music documentaries tend to focus on artists rather than environment, which is what makes Muscle Shoals an interesting prospect. You may not have heard of this small Alabama town that nestles on the banks of the Tennessee River, but the sounds it inspired will certainly be familiar. It’s here singers like Aretha Franklin and Percy Sledge cut their teeth, although as Greg Camalier’s illuminating documentary shows, this is just scratching the surface of the town’s rich musical history.
With studios in this rural enclave producing tunes from across the spectrum – country and western, soul, R&B and rock’n’roll – Camalier paints a fascinating picture of a creative hotbed that first ignited amid the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. At a time of great racial tension, black and white musicians were able to come together in Muscle Shoals and find harmony – and not just in their singing.
Included in the film’s illustrious roll-call are Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (notably filmed separately, which will fuel further speculation that they don’t get on). The Rolling Stones spent three days in Alabama, recording 'Brown Sugar' there, and Richards laments that they never had the chance to return. Other contributors range from Aretha Franklin to Alicia Keys. Only the appearance of Bono (who never recorded there) feels out of place.
Still, Camalier wisely never lets the famous faces overshadow those behind the music. At the core of Muscle Shoals is Rick Hall, the founder of the town’s FAME Studios. An unsung star, Hall may have discovered Percy Sledge and helped licence his classic 'When A Man Loves A Woman', but there’s much to his (partly tragic) background that’s just as fascinating. As personal as the film gets, it never becomes overly sentimental or nostalgic; rather, it’s a celebratory work alive with simple pleasures.
Limited release from Fri 25 Oct.