Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Muscle Shoals Got the Swampers

We've decided to continue the musical documentary kick we've been on with Muscle Shoals (2013). I've been aware of this famed town for as long as I remember, but I'd ever gotten the story until now. It was a tiny town in north Alabama, on the Tennessee River, with one, then two, of the greatest R&B recording studios in America.

It is mostly the story of Rick Hall, a poor boy who was raised (as he says) like a wild animal. He had a fierce competitive streak and the desire to make something of himself. He built the FAME recording studio, built up a house band, and started making hits. Soon, artists like Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin were showing up.

Their first reactions were often, "Who the hell are these hillbillies?", because Rick Hall and the house rhythm section are all white. The sessions often started out with suspicion, but once the band laid down a groove, it vanished. In fact, the movie posits that Aretha Franklin's label didn't know what to do with her, drowning her in smooth, sappy arrangements. When she jumped to Atlantic and went to Muscle Shoals, who revealed her dirty, funky, "greazy" soul power. The whole story is full of twists, turns and betrayals, leading up to the rhythm section breaking away and starting their own Muscle Shoals Studio just down the road. Just that part is worth the price of admission.

Just hearing some of the songs recorded at these studios would justify the movie.

Two small issues: The score tends towards a Ry Cooder-ish bluesy acoustic mood music. Even though it is one of the Swampers playing, something funkier might have been more appropriate.

Then there's the ending - they go to Lynyrd Skynyrd singing Sweet Home Alabama, with a Confederate flag backdrop. Now I understand that "In Birmingham they loved a governer" is not meant as praise of Gov. Wallace, and their beef with Neil Young was just show biz, but jeez. Ending this movie about black and white making music together with the flag of treason and slavery seems a little off.

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