During an era when Alabama Gov. George Wallace quite literally stood in the way of racial progress, legendary black artists teamed with white musicians in that very same state, laying down some of the most electric R&B of all time.
That’s the story told in Muscle Shoals, a lively but not exactly thorough history of the recording scene in that Alabama city by the Tennessee River, where stars like Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge and, later, rockers like The Rolling Stones created such well-known hits as “Land of 1,000 Dances,” “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” “When a Man Loves a Woman,” and “Brown Sugar,” among a truckload of others.
Director Greg Camalier captures dreamy imagery of sunflowers and swampland as well as an impressive assembly of talking heads who take turns attempting to explain why so much remarkable music flowed out of this little town in the deep South. Bono, waxing poetic in that wordy Irish way that only Bono can, posits that there’s some magic rooted in the Muscle Shoals earth, that “the songs come out of the mud.” Jimmy Cliff, who further developed his reggae sound in Muscle Shoals during the ’70s, suggests that there may be a “different field of energy” in that place where blue skies stretch high above cotton fields.
The movie also cites less spiritual reasons for all that chart-topping success. Simply, when you take a meticulous producer like Rick Hall—who founded FAME studios in the late 1950s, giving birth to the Muscle Shoals sound—and pair him with musicians capable of unleashing a staggering quantity of funk, memorable hooks can result.
All of that artistry didn’t happen without its share of drama, though, and Muscle Shoals covers that, including the drunken argument between Hall and Aretha Franklin’s then-husband, Ted White, that led to the dissolution of Hall’s relationship with Atlantic Records’ esteemed A&R man, Jerry Wexler. That rift, in turn, eventually paved the way for members of FAME’s studio band, The Swampers, to form the rival Muscle Shoals Recording Studio, where Mick, Keith, and the boys—as well as Bob Dylan, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Seger, and others—would eventually come to jam. The doc notes that racial tension didn’t contribute to any of the head-butting. Given the climate in 1960s Alabama, that’s hard to believe.
“You just worked together,” says the blind African-American singer Clarence Carter, who recorded “Slip Away” and other notable tracks at FAME. “You never thought about who was white and who was black. You thought about the common thing, and it was the music.”
The film neglects to provide some key details, including an explanation of what’s become of the two Muscle Shoals-based studios since their heyday and a complete account of which hits came when. Still, Muscle Shoals is energetic and inspiring enough that, by the end, it’s tough to decide what to do first: Dig out some old Percy Sledge and Wilson Pickett records, or set off on a road trip to the land where all those songs rose up somehow, out of mud, raw talent, or simply luck.