Muscle Shoals: Sundance Review

Muscle Shoals Aretha Franklin - H 2013

Muscle Shoals Aretha Franklin - H 2013

Even casual music fans will enjoy behind-the-hits doc.

Greg Camalier introduces us to the musicians who backed up legends of R&B including Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin.

PARK CITY — The next must-see music doc connecting dots even some enthusiasts might not know belong together, Greg Camalier's Muscle Shoals shows how an Alabama town with around 8,000 residents became a Mecca for artists ranging from Aretha Franklin to Lynyrd Skynyrd. With a deep musical and human-interest appeal augmented by exceptional doc photography, it deserves to enjoy a theatrical run before becoming a staple for Soul fans (alongside peers like Standing in the Shadows of Motown) on video.

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The end credits acknowledge how many musicians who contributed to the famous "Muscle Shoals sound" couldn't fit into a two-hour film (the scene's history is rich enough for a miniseries), but Camalier finds the story's key personality and makes the most of him: Rick Hall, whose family "grew up like animals" in a home with no toilet, turned into a workaholic producer whose ear rarely failed.

Camalier returns to the tragedies of Hall's backstory (his brother, father and first wife all died horribly; his mother ran off and became a prostitute) throughout the film, but also pays proper attention to the instrumentalists who helped build his FAME Studios empire before jumping ship to form their own company: The white boys who came to be called The Swampers won over tough customers like Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin in early sessions, creating the best records they -- and others Soul stars including Percy Sledge and the Staple Singers -- ever made.

"All funky meant was we didn't know how to make it smooth," one of the Swampers says modestly. But the film points to other possible ingredients of their success, like an environment where black and white performers, each versed in a different style, treated each other as equals despite the racial strife down the road. Atlantic Records' Jerry Wexler, another white man with a feel for black music, was an early appreciator of their output, and eventually was key to the Swampers' exodus. Surprisingly, both FAME and its rival studio continued cranking out hits through changing times.

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A trove of great stills and movie footage accompanies the colorful anecdotes, but the film's most consistent pleasure is the way interviewees recall the moments before the tape rolled on an immortal recording like Arthur Alexander's "You Better Move On"; as the finished song plays over session photos, viewers may feel they're hearing it for the first time.

Interview highlights include testimonials from Franklin and Pickett, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger (the Stones recorded "Brown Sugar" and "Wild Horses" in Muscle Shoals) and Hall himself. U2's Bono lays the mythologizing on thick -- understandable, maybe, since "the songs came out of the mud" is as good an explanation as any for how this backwater produced such a vast quantity of world-changing music.

Production Company: Ear Goggles Productions

Director: Greg "Freddy" Camalier

Producers: Stephen Badger, Greg "Freddy" Camalier

Director of photography: Anthony Arendt

Editor: Richard Lowe

Sales: Dan Braun and Josh Braun, Submarine Entertainment

No rating, 110 minutes