Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Sundance London 2013: Muscle Shoals Review

Director: Greg “Freddy” Camalier

Starring: Rick Hall, Wilson Pickett, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Aretha Franklin, the Swampers, Alicia Keys, Bono, Jimmy Cliff

Synopsis: Shedding a light on the relatively untold story of Muscle Shoals – a town in Alabama home to some of the greatest music ever recorded.

As the gravelly, iconic voice of Keith Richards utters – “it’s immortal...it’s in the grooves, man”. The “it” he’s referring to is the sound of Muscle Shoals – the soul and seminal quality of some of the best music ever etched into a vinyl record. For music enthusiasts they may already know the history and importance of Rick Hall and the titular area in the deep south of the US. Still, Muscle Shoals may impart some fresh information for those learned folk. And for those less acquainted with it all, this documentary will tell you everything you need to know.

Kicking off with a profoundly good choice of song – Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1000 Dances” – the film immediately emphasises the power and vivacity of this music. Soundtrack is, without question, one of the film’s finest elements, but it’s how Camalier pairs it with an image that cements the doc’s magnetism. As you listen to the funk, soul and slow-jams all recorded in the magical studios of Muscle Shoals, you are also given photography of the surrounding area. The majority of the montage happens at the beginning, introducing you to the land that housed the whole story. The film will inspire many people to visit the landmark area with the cinematography being another component advertising the charm of the place.

As a handful of admired musicians continue to praise the locale from start to finish, the legacy can never be queried. Stories from Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (to name a few) about their successful stint in the studios prove Muscle Shoals’ significance. However, these interviews are not the key to the story – it is Rick Hall and the Swampers’ chronicle that gets the deserved limelight. Without those engineers, musicians, producers, and visionaries the world would be without some superb songs.

Being the mastermind behind this musical revolution, Rick Hall gets a healthy amount of screen-time. His stories of creative input (such as Hall writing Clarence Carter’s “Patches” after the death of his father) and quest for perfection are insightful, though some snippets feel superfluous. The Swampers have less to say themselves but, fortunately, are spoken about more frequently by others – they are another vital part to defining the music. As many won’t realise, the instrumental work behind so many of this wonderful rhythm and blues music was conducted by these white dudes. Nearly all of the interviewed artists enjoying pointing this out and rightly so; it speaks volumes about racial awareness, which becomes a rousingly investigated subject.

There is more that could be said about the tracks recorded in the Muscle Shoals studios but it would require an entire series of films. Camalier does a terrific job of diluting that extensive history without making it seem flat or lacking. One thing that the film would have benefited from would be the deletion of filler shots (contrived photography of Hall or the Swampers standing in certain spots of the town), replaced with old stock footage or photos. Overall, however, it is an awe-inspiring account with a host of well renowned interviewees thrilled to talk about that special place where the music “comes up through the mud”.

By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on LiveForFilms

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