The lively new documentary “Muscle Shoals” -- packed to the rafters with classic soul, rock and R&B songs -- explores the rich musical heritage of two storied Alabama sound studios. On one level, it’s a standard-issue doc concerning a specific slice of musical history. On another, quieter level, it’s about that ephemeral and elusive substance known as mojo.
A hot ticket at this spring’s Full Frame Documentary Festival in Durham, “Muscle Shoals” is a good time for hardcore music nerds and casual fans alike. In the 1960s and 1970s, the music that came out of the small and unassuming town of Muscle Shoals, Ala., quite literally changed the direction of American popular music.
Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin made their first hit R&B records at the legendary Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals. In later years, Fame and the competing Muscle Shoals Sound Studio hosted a procession of pop music royalty: The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Little Richard, Paul Simon, Jimmy Cliff, Willie Nelson, Lynyrd Skynyrd. The film even makes the persuasive case that an accidental Muscle Shoals musical summit between Wilson Pickett and Duane Allman essentially invented Southern Rock.
As the film explains, the “Muscle Shoals Sound” became a genuine commodity in the 1960s and 1970s, sought by musicians and moguls alike. This was no superstition; it was an empirical phenomenon. The musicians interviewed in the film -- Mick Jagger, Jimmy Cliff, Percy Sledge -- testify that good songs became inexplicably great when recorded in Muscle Shoals. And the business guys have the numbers to prove that promising singles shipped to Alabama came back as massive hits. So what was this strange mojo?
Alabama’s musical mojo
The movie has a few theories. The original Fame Studios were founded by the film’s central figure, entrepreneur Rick Hall, whose hard-knock life reads like the most despairing of old-school country songs. The film’s early passages detail the weird alchemy that developed when Hall began bringing in black soul singers to record with the studio’s in-house band of local white session players.
Remember that this was rural Alabama in the 1960s. Governor George Wallace was just down the road, blocking school doorways. But inside Fame Studios, there were no racial divides. Soul singer Clarence Carter, a Fame Studios regular, remembers those early days: “You never thought about who was white and who was black,” he says. “The music played a big part in changing the thoughts of people in the South about race, just by us being in Muscle Shoals and putting music together.”
In another intriguing diversion, the film looks even further back in history. According to Native American lore, the particular stretch of the Tennessee river adjacent to Muscle Shoals was called “The River That Sings.” It was believed to be home to a spirit that protected the people by singing to them.
Mythmaking and hitmaking
This kind of American music mythmaking has been around since Robert Johnson took his guitar to the crossroads. But it suggests some of the ruminating undertones in “Muscle Shoals.” I wish the film had gone further in both its dreamy conjectures and its cultural contextualizing. For too much of its running time, “Muscle Shoals” stays in typical rock doc territory: talking head interviews spliced with archival footage, and everything steeped in proper reverence.
This familiar approach works just fine, and “Muscle Shoals” does it about as well as it can be done. Director Greg “Freddy” Camalierdo does an impressive job switching up the visual textures, employing blurred foregrounds, highly stylized recreations, time-lapse photography and meandering landscape shots of the river and the kudzu.
Some of the archival sequences are pure gold. I particularly liked the footage of the early 1970s Rolling Stones, terrifying the Alabama squares with some of the most alarming fashion choices in the band’s long history.
Interestingly, some of the most telling perspectives in the film come from U2’s Bono, who among all the marquee names consulted probably has the least direct experience of the Muscle Shoals scene. Early in the film, he remembers first hearing those early soul and R&B records coming out of Alabama, and suggests just how far those initial waves rippled out.
“That sound made it through to Ireland and Britain,” he says. “We felt the blood in that, we felt the pulse. And we wanted it, you know?”