I grew up in a household of music. Not the urbane type, not parents with MFAs and Coltrane records playing woodwinds and enrolling their kids in junior orchestra. I grew up in the household of a cover band. My dad has been playing bass for 40 and some of my earliest memories are my brother and me helping the band schlep into a dilapidated bar in the boonies. Dangling from a bar stool, wrapped in secondhand smoke in the days before owners gave a shit if having a kid in a bar looked bad, aural staples from American history informed my epistemological approach to the discipline of music: Stevie Ray Vaughn, James Brown, CCR. “Mustang Sally” was always a point of contention, one that my brother and I still talk about to this day. The oddity came in the vocal construction. Neither attractive nor detractive, witnessing an ensemble of blue-collar musicians, playing four hours for 100 bucks, belting at unknowable Sally to ride, always turned my head toward what happened in the years before I was born.
Muscle Shoals, as a documentary, is a number of entities. A telling of a sorely unrecognized bastion of Americana; a Southern Gothic fraught with betrayal and loss; a retrospective on the careers of some of the most established names ever in music. All of these descriptives function within the scope of what director Greg “Freddy” Camalier presents to the audience in the frame of two hours. The city of Muscle Shoals, at one time a quiet, conservative backwater of Alabama, ascended by reverence from a place to a phenomenon existing both spatially and temporally as the immensely unique sound that artists, producers, and engineers have pawed at for nearly half a century. The eternal awe invoked by the enormous carousel of guests ranging from unknown yet instrumental players in the creation of the “Muscle Shoals Sound” to bloated names along the lines of Bono frame the swampland as a forgotten Marfa or Cassadaga. I have no idea how Conor Oberst hasn’t skulked his way there yet.
There’s only so much that can be done in the way of cinematography in a documentary like this, especially one so interview-intensive. Muscle Shoals works in a triptych between present day interviews, collected footage and photographs from decades past, and sublimating vignettes of the natural world of Muscle Shoals. The first two are standard and serve their purpose; the unexpected long shot panning of mangroves and pastures removes you for a fragment of time and places the film in a scope not very far from the likes of Malick circa Days of Heaven. Within the film’s run time, dozens of anecdotes and stories are told from dozens of people spanning decades, and the desire of the ensemble to make the audience exalt Muscle Shoals is stifling from time time. One of the primary intents of the film is to convey the idea that the texture and rhythm of this sound came organically from the soil and water the studios were built on, and the case was most compelling when only the music was playing over soil and water.
I can understand why the director saw necessity in the size of the cast and the size of their names. Some are absolutely necessary in retelling the story of Muscle Shoals. Rick Hall, Founder of FAME Studios; his studio band The Swampers; Aretha Franklin; Gregg Allman; Clarence Carter; Percy Sledge — all of these names were instrumental in the foundation of the house they built. Even Mick Jagger and Keith Richards felt compelling as a presence in that they were some of the first to race down to Alabama to get ahold of the Muscle Shoals Sound. And then there was Bono. Whyyyyy fucking Bono? Whenever I see Bono do anything all I can think of is James Franco receiving an award for painting and vice versa. Quit padding your résumés. I would have much rather seen someone who embodies an extension of what was done in those studios, say Sharon Jones or Black Joe Lewis. Fuck, put Dan Auerbach in there; Pat Carney’s lanky ass can tag along too.
Extraneous names aside, one central narrative acts as tether to the disparate parts and gives the story drama and the sense of something at stake: Rick Hall, the founder of FAME Studios. This guy is heartbreaking. His life is the song Will Sheff fantasizes about writing. Hailing from the wilderness as a poverty-stricken boy, Rick endeavored through a series of insane setbacks including death, betrayal, homelessness, financial ruin, and close to anything else you could find in Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree. In one of the more jarring scenes that leaves you feeling just numb, Rick discusses how after achieving financial success, he purchased his father a John Deere tractor because he always wanted one when Rick was a boy but couldn’t afford it. The man died by being run over with the tractor. I’ve never heard of a man who more deserved to say he is a man of constant sorrow. Throughout the film, Rick references being “bitter” seven or eight times; when, towards, the end of the film, Rick plaintively states “I’m not so bitter anymore” while staring off into a copse of trees, I was genuinely caught off guard at how viscerally emotional that moment was.
Within the American consciousness, Detroit, New York, LA, and San Francisco all carved out monuments to the genres invented and reinvented over and over in those cities. Muscle Shoals functions like a growing flare within that historical geography, a hard voice rising from the Deep South saying, “I never needed those places, and I can prove it.” Part hard history and part mysticism, this documentary seeks to champion Muscle Shoals as one of the great birthplaces of American music. I hope they succeed.