Muscle Shoals takes up but a speck on a road map of the northwestern corner of Alabama, with a population that hovers around 13,000. And there’s really no logical explanation of how that sleepy city somehow became part of a triad of musical epicenters in the 1960s and ‘70s that came to define Southern music.
First, there was Macon in the remote center of Georgia, a city that somehow spawned Little Richard and then James Brown and then Otis Redding and then the Allman Brothers Band — all artists who either created or helped define new genres of popular music.
Then there was Memphis, home to Stax Records and the landmark studio band Booker T. & the M.G.’s. That’s where Redding recorded and came to be the figurehead of the Southern soul music movement that challenged Motown Records for dominance on the charts.
And, finally, there was Muscle Shoals, home of FAME Studios and the famed studio band the Swampers, who played on the hits of Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett and Percy Sledge. And later, when the Swampers opened up their own place, Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, everyone from the Rolling Stones to Lynyrd Skynyrd to Paul Simon to Bob Dylan to Bob Seger recorded there.
A new documentary film, “Muscle Shoals,” delves deep into the mystique of the Muscle Shoals sound with an impressive number of “A-list” stars: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Gregg Allman, Bono, Steve Winwood and Alicia Keys.
The film is at its best when it focuses on the core of the unlikely story: how a group of white males helped define the sound of black Southern soul music. FAME Studios was the vision of Rick Hall, a musician and songwriter who grew up in abject poverty and dreamed of owning his own studio. Then there are the musicians themselves — guitarist Jimmy Johnson, drummer Roger Hawkins, bassist David Hood, pianist Barry Beckett and keyboardist Spooner Oldham — who modestly and often eloquently remember the glory days of the Muscle Shoals music scene.
But the narrative at times gets disjointed and ventures into tangents that take the film off course. An inordinate amount of time, for example, is spent trying to explain what it admits early on is unexplainable: how a small city in rural Alabama became a musical epicenter. The conclusion? It must be something in the water.
“Muscle Shoals” opens horribly off-key with U2’s Bono waxing overly poetic about a place he has absolutely no tangible connection to. When Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett are all standing handy — and they’re each an intricate part of the history and legacy of Muscle Shoals — there’s no need to bring in a ringer. Especially one who sucks up an irritatingly large chunk of screen time in the first 10 minutes alone. It’s a cringe-worthy moment later on when, of all people, Bono is chosen to articulate the racial tensions in the South during the civil rights movement.
It’s one example of how the documentary cries for more meaningful context. Stax and Muscle Shoals had a natural rivalry that only deepened when Atlantic Records abandoned Stax and began to send its artists to record in Muscle Shoals. And when Otis Redding himself took protégé Arthur Conley to Muscle Shoals to record “Sweet Soul Music” in 1967, it caused major ripples within the Stax family. Yet even Stax eventually cried “uncle” when it called up the Swampers to record with the Staple Singers for “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There.”
None of that backstory is in the film. Stax is mentioned only in asides, and there’s nary a word about Booker T. & the M.G.’s. The film makes it seem that the studio band at Muscle Shoals was working in a singular vacuum. Sure, folks like Aretha and Wilson Pickett were shocked when they arrived in Muscle Shoals to discover that that funky sound was produced by white musicians. But when the M.G.’s went on the road for the first time in 1967 to back up the Stax stars on a European tour, fans were just as shocked to discover that Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn were white.
It’s akin to documenting the early days of the Stones without once mentioning the band’s rivalry with another group on the circuit, the Beatles. (Coincidentally, early in their careers, both those groups recorded cover versions of hits cut in Muscle Shoals by soul star Arthur Alexander.)
The film’s strength is the same as the strength of the Muscle Shoals sound itself: the musicians and Rick Hall. The world opened up for Hall when he recorded a hospital orderly named Percy Sledge singing “When a Man Loves a Woman.” It became a hit for Atlantic Records, which had made heavy use of the Stax studio for its roster of R&B stars. But after the falling out with Stax and the success of Sledge’s hit, Atlantic began to send its singers to Muscle Shoals.
The movie has riveting segments on Sledge and Pickett and Franklin, as well as the Rolling Stones making a pilgrimage there in 1969 to record “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses.” The scenes combine sensational archival footage with fresh and revealing interviews with the performers, Hall and the studio musicians.
There’s also depth in segments that show how central Muscle Shoals became to the Southern Rock movement. Duane Allman came to prominence as a session guitarist at FAME, and it was in Muscle Shoals where the Allman Brothers Band first began to form. Muscle Shoals also played a key role in the genesis of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
I personally wish that a segment had been devoted to what I consider the most soulful track ever recorded in Muscle Shoals: “I’ll Take You There.” The Staple Singers and the Swampers? For me, it was the Muscle Shoals sound at its finest. But the legacy of those studios and of the Swampers lies in the arguments that can ensue from such a declaration. “I’ll Take You There”? What about Aretha’s version of “Respect”? Or “Chain of Fools”? How about Pickett’s “Hey Jude”? And how can you forget Simon’s “Kodachrome”? “When a Man Loves a Woman”? “Mustang Sally”? “Brown Sugar”? And what about Duane Allman’s solo on “Loan Me a Dime”?
“Muscle Shoals” is an important film about a pivotal period in American music. The list of great recordings that emanated from Muscle Shoals feels endless. The breadth and depth of those records is truly breathtaking. In its best moments, “Muscle Shoals” allows one to feel the heart behind that life-changing music. But at 151 minutes, it’s far too long and follows far too many tangents that break the flow. Cut by about 30 minutes and tightened, it would’ve been as crisp as a Roger Hawkins backbeat.
“Muscle Shoals.” With Bono, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Gregg Allman. Directed by Greg “Freddy” Camalier. 151 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Cinema.
ArtsATL Deputy Editor Scott Freeman is the author of two books on Southern music: Midnight Riders: The Story of the Allman Brothers Band and Otis! The Otis Redding Story.