For those won over by 20 Feet From Stardom, Muscle Shoals shines even more light on the funky foundation of some of the greatest pop and rock ever recorded. For the uninitiated, Muscle Shoals is the small Alabama river town that became a pop music temple. Recording artists flocked there throughout the decades, looking to get a piece of the soulful "Muscle Shoals sound" that was the hallmark of its musicians and studio cats.
The documentary portrays the chief architect of that sound as record producer Rick Hall, a man with a curly-tipped mustache and a lot of painful personal baggage: growing up in the swamp, losing his younger brother when he was a kid, losing his first wife in a car accident. As the movie lays out the great musical moments that happened in Muscle Shoals, concentrating on Hall's FAME Studios, it always comes back to Hall and his saga, explaining how he obsessively launched a mission to prove he could become a major somebody in the music industry — without leaving his own backyard.
The Muscle Shoals sound became associated with black music and black artists, especially once Hall started producing records for the likes of R&B troubadour Arthur Alexander, who recorded for Nashville's Dot label (and whose songs were later covered by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones). But director Greg "Freddy" Camalier shows that the sound mostly came from the instruments of young white men. Nicknamed "the Swampers," the predominantly alabaster session crew — which included such gents as keyboardists Spooner Oldham and Barry Beckett, bassist David Hood and a pre-Allman Brothers Band Duane Allman — collaborated and performed on career-defining hits for Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and other performers, who were initially apprehensive about these white boys.
But the artists came to be awestruck by them, and Muscle Shoals paints the town as both a place of spontaneous musical collaboration and a land of spooky, enigmatic wonder. We get interviews from the artists who recorded there as well as the artists who were influenced by the music, as all try to wrap their heads around what made this little podunk hamlet bristle with constant musical inspiration. ("It's like the songs come out of the mud," remarks talking-head Bono, practically serving as the movie's go-to pontificating historian.) The movie even brings in a descendant from the Yuchi tribe to explain that it could have something to do with the nearby Tennessee River, which American Indians used to call "The River That Sings."
As much as director Camalier lays on the Southern gothic moodiness, the real enjoyment comes from watching artists recall their days heading to Alabama and sampling this mojo for themselves. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards discuss the work they did with Swampers on Sticky Fingers, complete with footage of them jamming (and imbibing) in the studio. Franklin shows up to reminisce about hanging out with the Swampers at Hall's studio, desperately trying to come up with a groove — that is, until Oldham began playing the memorable organ riff that would start off "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)."
Of course, conflict would eventually rear its ugly head, as key Swampers wrested themselves from Hall's authoritative grip and set up their own recording studio. Everyone from Bob Dylan to Willie Nelson to Rod Stewart laid down tracks there in the '70s, making Hall even more bitter than usual. But even with that bit of drama on display, Muscle Shoals still keeps its focus on the music and how it ended up summoning and inspiring so many people.
As in Stardom, this movie ends with some of the session musicians saluted in the film in a recording studio, once again creating that magic for a major artist during an uplifting climactic performance. An occasionally doleful but overall lively trip down musical memory lane, Muscle Shoals offers yet another cinematic shout-out to those unsung heroes who came out of nowhere — and ended up making music that changed everything.