As my daughters and my girlfriend will tell you I am a huge fan of documentaries, especially when it comes to music documentaries. A coworker told me about this documentary, as she was a huge fan of soul music as I was. At the very beginning of the documentary, Bono of U2 describes this very studio started in the turbulent times of George Wallace and the march on Selma, as “Magic, It’s about alchemy, it’s about turning metal, the iron in the ground, the rust, into gold.” The film uncovers how a small Alabama township near the Tennessee River served as the source of some of the best music of the 1960s -’70s. The fact that you have international artists Like Jimmy Cliff and Keith Richards, talk about this place, which is a million miles away from either of them, stands to testament just how powerful an institution this place was and is to the world of music. The feeling as described by one of its previous tenants, Candi Staton, is that “ it’s that oh deep down into your stomach, coming up out of your gut, coming up out of your heart, that is that Muscle Shoals sound.” This definitely is evident in some of the songs that were recorded there:”Steel Away,” “Freebird,” “When a Man loves a Woman” and “Wild Horses.” From everyone who has visited and recorded there, just about everyone who was interviewed throughout the film, make this studio seems like the Vatican, for musicians, and this is reinforced by the director’s introduction of the Native American legend of the Tennessee River of the singing woman to the rare fact that WC Handy, to some better known as “ The father of the blues” was from Muscle Shoals to the man responsible for Elvis Presley’s success , Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records. The film brings to light, many fascinating facts not only about the studio, but also about the American Songbook. One of the interesting facts, was that many of their artists were local musicians like Percy Sledge, who lived only one town away from the studio. Another fact that was revealed is that Atlantic Records and Chess Records recorded many albums there, starting with Wilson Pickett’s ”Mustang Sally” and “Land of 1000 Whole Dances”, and Etta James iconic “Tell Mama.” This is also the studio where Aretha Franklin found her sound, recording “I Never Loved a Man.” Rick Hall, the founder of Muscle Shoals, is the central figure in the documentary, who reveals his many personal struggles which is very much interconnected with the history of the studio. The movie has a ton of archival footage, which one would expect from a documentary, and also emphasizes just how important background players were, (who incidentally were predominantly white), and because they heavily played on drums and bass, inducing fans to believe they were listening to black musicians. The most surprising fact, is how this studio deep in the South, was a place where black and white musicians came together for the sole purpose of making music and within its walls, the realities of race was somehow suspended in time. The film almost reminds you of “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” but with mostly white musicians playing black music, incidentally during the same time as their Detroit counterparts. What made the film so interesting to me, is truly the stories behind the music, which this movie is full of, from the creation of the Allman Brothers to the recording of Wilson Pickett’s rendition of “Hey Jude” to the genesis of the song ”Freebird.” The director’s careful interweaving of civil rights history and music history is what makes this an engrossing film, as the music by itself will make you want to go buy a Percy Sledge vinyl, but the film largely will make you want to go digging in the crates and look at these landmark songs with not only new insight but a new appreciation of the artists who made them. A definite must see.
Streaming on Netflix and available for purchase on Amazon.com