From the outside, Muscle Shoals, Alabama looks like a speck on the map, nestled on the south bank of the Tennessee River. It seems like an unlikely source for some of the greatest American music of the 20th century. Really, it seems just as unlikely a place from the inside, too. How did such a remote location become one of the go-to places for soul artists in the 1960s to record, from locals like Percy Sledge to out-of-towners like Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin? How did it become home to two world-class recording studios that played host to genre-spanning talent from around the world, including Jimmy Cliff, Paul Simon, Traffic, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan?
The documentary Muscle Shoals opens with some possible explanations. Bono says “it’s about alchemy,” and Cliff suggests, “At different points in time on this planet, there are certain places where there is a field of energy.” Director Greg “Freddy” Camalier at times seems to buy into their quasi-mystical view of the place, offering many lingering shots of rolling water and fields of sunflowers that make it resemble an Alabamian Brigadoon. But mostly, he contents himself with recounting the story of how Muscle Shoals became a musical hotbed through the lives of those who made it such, with a focus on one life in particular.
In many respects, the story of Muscle Shoals’ history as a musical epicenter begins and ends with producer and songwriter Rick Hall. After assuming control of a music recording and publishing company called FAME, he began using local talent as session musicians. By recording Arthur Alexander, Hall enjoyed immediate success, allowing him to build the studio he calls home to this day. Alexander’s success kicks off a couple of narratives that Camalier explores for the rest of the film, though never as deeply as he might. The talent Hall assembled soon left him for greener pastures, just as the musicians he worked with later in the decade left to establish the competing Muscles Shoals Sound Studio just down the road. (The rivalry between the two studios plays heavily into the film’s second half.) Then there are the musicians Hall recruited, all skilled at making the funky, gritty music that helped define soul music, and all skilled at gelling with whatever artists they backed—though the singers were usually black, and the initial musicians were white, and all this happened in a world where neither camp was encouraged to mingle with the other.
It’s one of the miracles of its time that it happened at all. The miracle isn’t exclusive to Muscle Shoals—similar alchemy was happening up in Memphis—but it couldn’t have happened just anywhere. And it wouldn’t have happened without Hall’s will to succeed. Camalier doesn’t delve deeply into the histories of anyone but Hall, which at times makes Muscle Shoals feel a little uneven. But Hall is still fascinating. He talks about a tragic history—losing a brother, wife, and father to separate, horrific accidents at a young age—and being driven by a desire to prove everyone wrong. He also emerges as a first-rate talent-spotter and taskmaster, assembling musicians with remarkable chemistry and getting them to produce their best work, even if they didn’t love him for it, and if he sometimes made enemies in the process. Over the course of the film, Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler recounts falling for Hall and falling out with him, while Hall’s former musicians speak admiringly of him, but with a trace of fear.
Muscle Shoals’ story has needed telling, and Camalier packs that telling with memorable stories and music—though the film sometimes substitutes admiration for investigation, paving over conflicts and moving on to the next amazing piece of music to get recorded in town. Camalier also sometimes lets his respect for the success of the town’s studios overwhelm the story. In the ’70s, Muscle Shoals played host to an array of artists that included the Osmonds and Paul Anka. They had hits, but what they did wasn’t exactly the same as Percy Sledge recording “When A Man Loves A Woman” the first time he stepped into a studio, either. And once Muscle Shoals notes the way the classic soul style it helped pioneer fell from fashion at the end of the ’60s, it never returns to the topic.
Still, just getting the story down is an accomplishment. And while Camalier doesn’t offer any theories as to why Muscle Shoals happened, his film nicely sketches what did happen, and why it mattered. Maybe the mystics have it right after all. “It’s like the songs come out of the mud,” Bono says. The music so rooted in that particular place—and so tough to replicate by outsiders—suggests he might be on to something.