News Column

'Muscle Shoals' review: a soulful musical feast

October 11, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 11--Documentary. Directed by Greg "Freddy" Camalier. (Rated PG. 111 minutes.)

The hits just keep on coming in "Muscle Shoals," a hugely entertaining, perhaps overlong, documentary about the renowned recording studios in the small Alabama town of the film's title. It's mandatory viewing for fans of the classic rock, soul and rhythm and blues of the 1960s and '70s.

The Muscle Shoals sound was funky, bluesy and elemental, and it brought an incredible number of top musical names to northwestern Alabama. Rick Hall's Fame Studios became a hit factory, beginning with Arthur Alexander's "You Better Move On" in 1961, followed two years later by Jimmy Hughes' "Steal Away."

Those records opened the floodgates. By 1969, Hall's success prompted his studio musicians, called the Swampers, to break away and create a rival operation, the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.

The two studios recorded an astounding number of top acts. Here's a modest sampling of those artists, some of whom appear in the film and offer delectable observations and recollections: Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Gregg Allman, Clarence Carter, Etta James, the Staple Singers, Jimmy Cliff, Traffic, the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, Tom Jones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Seger and Willie Nelson.

Franklin recalls how Muscle Shoals helped her make the transition from a more middle-of-the-road pop performer to the Queen of Soul. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are interviewed separately, and at length, and offer some of the movie's choicest tidbits. Bono rhapsodizes about the gritty Muscle Shoals sound, suggesting its source in the landscape and the nearby Tennessee River. Sledge and Allman have some memorable stories.

Fame founder Hall talks extensively about his hardscrabble beginnings and the single-mindedness and drive it took to make the studio happen. He got a major assist from Atlantic Records' Jerry Wexler (also interviewed), who quickly saw that something of great musical significance was taking place in Alabama.

Racial issues are addressed. Many performers, both black and white, were surprised to arrive and find that the Swampers, with their intense groove, were white musicians. By common testimony, there was an easy interplay inside the studio between musicians of different races, though one Swamper remembers tension with the townspeople when racially mixed groups went out to eat.

First-time director Greg "Freddy" Camalier has pulled together a lot of great material, but ladles on the poetic shots of the river and countryside. He might also have trimmed some of the windier speculations as to why so much excellent music came from this one little town.

Ignore that stuff and feast your eyes and ears on the interviews and performance clips.

Walter Addiego is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: waddiego@sfchronicle.com

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