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The origin of the sound in Muscle Shoals



For those who were won over by 20 Feet From Stardom, Muscle Shoals is another documentary coming this way that'll take you back to the good ol' days of pop and rock, shining a light on one of its funky foundations.

For the uninitiated, Muscle Shoals is the small town in northwestern Alabama that became a pop music temple. It drew hordes of recording artists, all out to get a piece of that soulful "Muscle Shoals sound."

The chief architect of that sound was (and is) record producer Rick Hall, a man with a curly-tipped mustache and a lot of painful personal baggage (growing up in the swamp, losing his younger brother, losing his first wife in a car accident). As the movie lays out the great musical moments that happened (specifically in Hall's FAME Studios), it always comes back to Hall and his saga, explaining how he obsessively launched a mission to prove he could become a major somebody in the music industry—all without leaving his own backyard.

Because Hall began producing records for the likes of R&B troubadours Arthur Alexander (whose songs were later covered by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones) and Percy Sledge, the Muscle Shoals sound is usually associated with black music and black artists. But the movie reveals that the sound mostly came from the instruments of young white men. Nicknamed "the Swampers," this rhythm section, which included such gents as renowned session keyboardist Spooner Oldham and a pre-Brothers Duane Allman, collaborated and performed on career-defining hits for Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and other performers who were initially apprehensive of—then awestruck by—these white boys.

Muscle Shoals paints the town as both a place of funky musical collaboration and a land of spooky, enigmatic wonder. The artists who recorded there—as well as those who were later influenced by them—try to wrap their heads around what makes this little hamlet bristle with musical inspiration. "It's like the songs come out of the mud," remarks Bono, serving as a go-to, somewhat pontificating, historian. The movie even presents a descendant from the Yuchi tribe to explain that it could have something to do with the Tennessee River, which Native Americans used to call "The River That Sings."

As much as director Greg "Freddy" Camalier lays on the Southern Gothic moodiness, the real enjoyment comes from watching artists recall their days sampling this mojo for themselves. Both Mick Jagger and Keith Richards discuss the work they did with the Swampers on Sticky Fingers, complete with footage of them jamming (and imbibing) in the studio. Franklin reminisces about hanging out with the Swampers at Hall's studio. On one occasion, they were desperately looking for a groove when Oldham started playing the memorable organ riff that would start off "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)."

But conflict eventually reared its ugly head. Key Swampers wrested themselves from Hall's grip and set up their own recording studio, where everyone from Bob Dylan to Willie Nelson to Rod Stewart laid down tracks in the '70s. It was an embittering experience for Hall, but even with that bit of drama on display, Muscle Shoals still keeps its focus on the music and how it summoned and inspired so many people. Just like in Stardom, this movie ends with some of the session musicians saluted in the film in a recording studio, once again creating that magic for a major artist during an uplifting, climactic performance.

An occasionally doleful but otherwise lively trip, Muscle Shoals is yet another cinematic shout-out to those unsung heroes who came out of nowhere and made music that mattered.

This article appeared in print with the headline "White guys."

Related Film

Muscle Shoals

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Director: Greg 'Freddy' Camalier

Producer: Stephen Badger and Greg 'Freddy' Camalier

Cast: Aretha Franklin, Bono, Greg Allman, Clarence Carter, Mick Jagger, Etta James, Alicia Keys, Keith Richards and Percy Sledge

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