Memo to filmmakers: if you’re planning to make a music documentary, please resist the temptation to call Bono’s agent. Judging from his recent appearances in rockumentaries about The Ramones, Leonard Cohen, Joe Strummer, and B. B. King, the world’s most annoying and pompous tax-evading rock star is hovering anxiously over the phone waiting for another invitation to expound pointlessly on music far superior to any he’s ever created himself.
He’s at it again in Muscle Shoals, an uneven but reasonably entertaining feature opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, October 11. Mumbling platitudes about songs rising from the mud, the man and his ostentatious designer sunglasses is accompanied this time by other familiar but slightly less annoying rock gods, including Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Steve Winwood.
A small, swampy northern Alabama town located on the banks of the Tennessee River, Muscle Shoals is home to producer Rick Hall and his legendary FAME recording studio. Using a white rhythm section known as The Swampers, Hall has cut dozens of funky, deep soul classics since the late 1950s, including Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman”, Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally”, and Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You)”.
The music recorded at FAME is, of course, glorious, but Hall’s life story is the glue that holds Muscle Shoals together. Growing up in abject poverty and abandoned by his mother at an early age, the producer considers ‘rejection’ his life’s theme. Still working at the age of 81, he’s a quiet, laconic chap described by colleagues as an imperfect perfectionist, someone who recognizes that musical mistakes lend recordings the all important human element.
When Muscle Shoals spends time with Hall, it’s magical, but director Greg Camalier’s film also includes the somewhat less intriguing tale of the aforementioned rhythm section. Just as Hall was on the verge of signing a major distribution deal with Capitol Records, The Swampers were tempted away from FAME by Atlantic bigwig Jerry Wexler, who gave them seed money to set up their own studio on the other side of town.
As brilliant as The Swampers were as a backing band – and by golly, they were great – their business decision took them on a path diametrically opposed to Hall’s. Instead of cutting African-American artists, The Swampers’ studio became the birthplace of southern rock, personified by hirsute redneck rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Other pop artists such as Paul Simon, The Rolling Stones, and Traffic also recorded there, but for folks more interested in Arthur Alexander, Candi Staton, and Jimmy Hughes, this part of the film feels like a bit of a letdown. Matters aren’t helped by a credit crawl featuring – what else? – Skynyrd’s annoying anthem “Sweet Home, Alabama”. Yee haw.
Tributes to southern heritage aside, though, there’s still enough good stuff in Muscle Shoals to warrant a viewing. There’s a brooding, Faulknerian magnificence about Hall – and then there’s the incredible Percy Sledge. Sledge picked cotton as a child, worked as a hospital orderly as a young adult (while on the job, he sang patients to sleep), and correctly predicted that Jimi Hendrix would be the death of soul music. Any chance of a tour, Mr. Sledge? Perhaps U2 could open for you.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more Big Screen Berkeley reviews here.
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