***1/2 (out of four)
Go see “Muscle Shoals”—seriously, don’t miss it—and watch the way the seats bob up and down. That’s viewers unable to resist tapping their feet. Don’t be surprised if some get up and dance. Movie theaters need more of that.
This wonderful doc hones in on Muscle Shoals, Ala., which is not just a small community but the home of an R&B/soul sound that informed a list of classic songs so long that the rest of this review could be spent naming them: Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves a Woman …” Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally.” The Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar.” (Keith Richards says “Exile on Main St.” would have been recorded in Muscle Shoals had he been allowed into the U.S. at the time.) Work by Bob Dylan, Etta James, Paul Simon, Little Richard, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rod Stewart and many more. Somewhere, Barney Stinson is warming up his “legendary” catchphrase.
The man who bottled this sound and founded Fame Studios, where it all began, is Rick Hall, and in “Muscle Shoals” first-time feature director Greg “Freddy” Camalier captures the near-constant tragedy that shaped Rick’s determination and passion for music. The extraordinary work done inside Fame’s walls, performed, to the surprise of many, by white musicians, is so contagious that you may think your ears are waking from a long slumber. Hall’s talent and perfectionism show the value of production and how a track is so much more than its end product.
In addition to many useful interviews with the big names and background players, the film demonstrates the history absorbed into the songs. It’s challenging to articulate a sound inspired by a river and trains and studio-adjacent cotton fields, but Camalier does it. I just wish he hadn’t let one talking head get away with suggesting the music, recorded away from the “Segregation Forever” rants of Gov. George Wallace, changed perceptions about race relations. That kind of statement needs backup.
Recalling “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” and “Twenty Feet From Stardom,” “Muscle Shoals” also struggles to connect the music’s legacy to the present; Alicia Keys’ pipes can’t hold a candle to the film’s amazing singers, and John Paul White of the Civil Wars hardly represents the peak of achievement and influence. How about Alabama Shakes?
Oh well, can’t have it all, and “Muscle Shoals” has funky magic in it. Ooh, baby, does it ever.
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