FILM REVIEW | MUSCLE SHOALS
photo manipulations by nacrowe
the story of MUSCLE SHOALS (EAR GOGGLES, 2013) is the kind of thing that only happens in AMERICA. its a total anomaly. deep in the heart of JIM CROW south during the very period of national transformation surrounding the civil rights movement you have a small unassuming recording studio that punched far above its weight. in fact, the music it produced has for many defined 1960s R&B with hit singles for CHESS RECORDS and ATLANTIC RECORDS from seminal black artists like ARETHA FRANKLIN, PERCY SLEDGE, WILSON PICKETT, ETTA JAMES among others.
all music is bigger than the sum of its parts, and there is a certain alchemy when all those parts work in tandem mysteriously to produce gold. that was the case with producer RICK HALL and his studio musicians "THE SWAMPERS," all unassuming locals from humble beginnings in rural ALABAMA. that chemistry between these white players is what set them apart as a unit and in league with other studio collectives such as THE WRECKING CREW and THE FUNK BROTHERS.
the documentary largely kept its focus on the individual stories of RICK HALL and THE SWAMPERS, but it would have been interesting to get their opinion about what it meant to have such transgressive music produced in a state that rejected the very humanity of the black artists that created it. i mean, they lived through the reign of terror of GEORGE WALLACE, the vocal segregationist governor of ALABAMA in the 1960s. it is such an interesting situation that seems should have been explored further. a huge letdown and missed opportunity if you ask me.
instead we learn that RICK HALL and THE SWAMPERS split over money, basically having two rival studios (FAME STUDIOS & MUSCLE SHOALS SOUND) in the same town, producing countless famous records in the process by the likes of THE ROLLING STONES, TRAFFIC, BOB DYLAN, LYNYRD SKYNYRD, SIMON & GARFUNKEL, etc.
for me this documentary works best when it speaks about the nature of creativity and the art of listening. as musicians, THE SWAMPERS and RICK HALL had a gift for listening to their artist and determining what sound would work well for them. they were not imposing anything, in fact they were trying to be as transparently and authentically behind the artist as possible.
MUSCLE SHOALS is definitely worth checking out if you have any interest in AMERICAN music or recording studios in general. a must watch.
i was back stateside a few months after this documentary came out. i can't remember if it was the summer after i finished teaching in VENEZUELA or JAPAN, but anyway i was in NYC when a relative of mine called. i'll spare mentioning this relative's name, only to state that she works in the film industry and has overseen various famous soundtracks. she called and asked if i was available later that day to attend an NPR interview at LINCOLN CENTER where they were interviewing members of THE SWAMPERS for a new unreleased documentary on MUSCLE SHOALS. she also asked if i was familiar with MUSCLE SHOALS to which i replied that they were like the equivalent of THE FUNK BROTHERS and THE WRECKING CREW, all being famous studio musician collectives. she didn't respond to those names.
i get to the NPR thing which was being recorded for a later national broadcast and within 10 minutes one of the musicians was talking about THE FUNK BROTHERS and THE WRECKING CREW and their mutual respect for one another. points to me i guess.
one is asked about a recording session and the guy was unsure of the third song he recorded with THE ROLLING STONES, my relative asked me what it was and i said "wild horses" to which she immediately yelled in front of 500+ people "WILD HORSES!" and the guy was like "oh yeah, that's right, WILD HORSES."
i almost died. couldn't believe she did that. she turned to me and something along the lines of "i knew i brought you here for a reason." its funny, i only had a passing knowledge of what MUSCLE SHOALS was and i have no idea how i knew about that song since i am not a huge STONES fan. but anyway, now that i watched the film in earnest, i had to mention this related experience with the film.