“MUSCLE SHOALS” IS an entertaining, elevating documentary about the recording studio, Fame, in the town of Muscle Shoals. This was the studio that helped produce the funk that energized some of the legendary masters of 60’s and 70’s soul and pop music. In an unpretentious studio located in the heart of racist America – Colbert County, Alabama – a brilliant producer, Rick Hall, working with a group of extraordinary white musicians (Pete Carr, Jimmy Johnson, Roger Hawkins, David Hood and Barry Beckett) pumped out hit upon hit, rivaling the Detroit centre (Motown) for success, and became the foot-tapping soul behind many a black musician.
The music is thrilling.
We see the early recordings of a young nervous Black gospel singer, almost literally plucked from the cotton plantations where he entertained the slaves (oops, workers). This was Wilson Pickett with “When a Man Loves a Woman”, a song that epitomized the soul music of the 60’s: gutsy, passionate, filled with a kind of stirring dynamism that you certainly wouldn’t have found with the Everly Brothers.
Hall was the one who, when Aretha Franklyn was fired after five failed years at Colombia records (Colombia never knew how to get the most out of that voice and buried it under – white – saspy Patsy Klein type songs), helped turn her into the Queen of Soul. I think one of the secrets of great documentary film-making is finding the right archival footage. And in Muscle Shoals, Director Greg Camalier has unearthed some priceless material. We see the filmed record of the initial relationship between Aretha and the musicians of Muscle Shoals (they were called the Swampers). It was a testy one that only began to sparkle when, after mucking around for days, Barry Beckett on keyboards crafted those few opening bars of “I Never Loved a Man (the way I love you)”. That was all it needed to catapult the song into the shape it took and to become Aretha’s first big hit. It underlined the type of singing and the type of groove we’ve come to expect from her.
The film offers a knit of interviews – Bono, Alicia Keys, Clarence Carter, Wilson Pickett, a vast Aretha Franklyn, Sam Phillips (speaking about the lasting role of gospel in his life and in the way it/he shaped the music of Elvis Presley at Sun Studios) etc. But mainly the interviews focused in on the musical erudition of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. The Stones had reached a point where, apparently, they wanted to ‘blacken’ their rock. And so, down they went to work with a bunch of white musicians. And in an incredible three days, churned out “Brown Sugar”, “Wild Horses” and “You Gotta Move” (all of which were in the famous “Sticky Fingers” album designed by Andy Warhol).
Greg Allman camped out in front of the studio for days until a reluctant Hall agreed to listen to his music and produce (what would become the Allman Brothers). There, at Fame Studios, Allman and Wilson Pickett became fast friends; Alman persuaded a reluctant Pickett to develop his own (powerful, ground shaking) version of “Hey Jude”, and working with a group of white and black backing musicians, Allman developed what would go on to be classified as Southern rock.
Hall was clearly at the epicenter of this revolution in sound (indeed, even when the Swampers left him to form their own studio, Hall recruited, mainly Black, musicians to keep his groove going. And Fame Studios is still very much in action and works with musicians such as Carrie Underwood). The movie darts between the energy and excitement of the recording artists and the man himself. His was a life fit for a Blues record: brother killed in infancy by falling into a vat of boiling water; mother turned prostitute; father killed when a tractor (bough him by a grateful son, Hall) turns over and crushes him to death. All this Hall managed to communicate in a song that he persuaded an uncertain Clarence Carter to record. This song was “Patches”. It became a monster hit for Carter.
Apart from the sheer foot stomping joyfulness of the music, the one core theme that pulls the movie together is the transformative power that the music and musicians of the time played in the civil rights ‘march’. As “Muscle Shoals” makes clear, this was a time when the nation was rigidly divided between the segregationist forces of George Wallace and the integrationist dreams of Martin Luther King. Fame Studios was a color-free oasis in a racist culture. One of the most pressing problems of the Black artists recording there was their inability to buy a sandwich at the local diner, where ‘coloureds’ were not allowed. And as these bigots (they’re still there, but now they call themselves ‘birthers’) stewed in their rage, a bunch of white guys created the black sound of Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklyn and the troop at Stax Records; even the cool reggae vibe of a young Jimmy Cliff. And a bunch of black guys energized the white music of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, The Beatles etc.
What a time it all was. The music, exploring a brave new world and dealing with the angst of racism and Vietnam had an urgency, an edge, a funkiness to it. Now all of this has turned into the banality of Milly Cyrus and Rihanna, whose closest brush with angst is how best to craft their brands.
Ah well, as Derek Walcott, the noble laureate of West Indian poetry has written, “All of we has we angst, but I has none”