There must be something in the water. That cliche gets taken seriously in Muscle Shoals, the documentary about two legendary recording studios nestled near the Tennessee River. Maybe the river brings out the blues, something spiritual, but more likely (as some suggest) it's the local color and the remoteness from L.A. and New York that has appealed to music stars like the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Willie Nelson and other mainstreamers looking for a little of the magic that launched soul artists like Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin into the stratosphere.
Director Greg "Freddy" Camalier, utilizing fine interviews conducted by producer Stephen Badger, lays out the story of FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and how it came to be challenged by The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. The lightning rod figure here is Rick Hall, "the founder of the music business in Muscle Shoals" who rose above humble beginnings and personal tragedies to establish FAME and nurture stars by setting a tone in the studio and gathering top-notch session musicians.
At 80, Hall remains sharply opinionated, and his extensive recollections give Muscle Shoals its spine. But this is also the story of legendary producer Jerry Wexler and backing musicians like the FAME Gang and The Swampers (Roger Hawkins, David Hood, Jimmy Johnson, Barry Beckett, et al), a team of white session musicians who ironically backed Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, among many others ("these cats are really greasy," Franklin remembers being assured about them).
At the film's outset, Bono promises, "You're going to hear some of the greatest voices that ever were," and he's not just whistling Dixie. The story of FAME is also the story of the making of musical greats like Sledge (who recorded "When a Man Loves a Woman" there), Pickett ("Land of 1,000 Dances," "Mustang Sally") and Franklin, who laid down "I Never Loved a Man" with the Swampers, then recorded "Respect" with them in New York after Hall stoked drama in Muscle Shoals. As time goes by, more flock to town to record: Etta James ("Tell Mama"), the Stones ("Wild Horses," "Brown Sugar"), Clarence Carter ("Patches"), Bob Seger ("Main Street"), but not all with Hall, who recalls the launch of a rival studio—by former colleagues—as "war."
Strong personalities clash regularly in this story, but all agree on Hall's ability to get results. Hall confesses to his constant need for hits: : "I always felt that every record: my life depended on it." Other interviewees include Sledge, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Jimmy Cliff, Steve Winwood, Alicia Keys, and Gregg Allman, but the Swampers tell most of the best stories, including how Duane Allman suggested Wilson Pickett's "Hey Jude" cover ("And all of a sudden, there was southern rock"). And yes, even those longhairs Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded in Muscle Shoals, no less than the immortal "Freebird." Music lovers won't want to miss Muscle Shoals, and they'll want to stay to the end for simple words of wisdom from Hall on the x-factor that makes great production.