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Muscle Shoals (2013); And the Incredible Power of Music

June 10, 2015


There are times when I am reminded why film is the perfect medium to tell a story. Watching Greg “Freddy” Camalier’s documentary, Muscle Shoals, is one of those times. A complex story chronicling the life and repute of two recording studios, FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, in the boonies of Alabama gets transformed into a bombastic tale of triumph over tragedy. The success of Muscle Shoals is owed in large part to its stylized method of filming and editor Richard Lowe’s amalgamation of clips, music tracks, rough takes, and photographs. It is customary for documentaries to use the same tropes to tell a subject’s story, but what makes Muscle Shoals unique is Camalier’s dramatic filming techniques that allows drama to unfold from unexpected places and develops characters out of the music itself.

Like Stax, Motown, and Chess Records, a number of studios were creating unique and signature sounds in R&B all over the country between the 1950 and 1970s. Muscle Shoals brought its own style to the R&B scene shocking both artists and audiences by creating grimy, soulful tunes all played by white, amateur session players. These players, known as The Swampers, became known for their ability to play rhythm is varying styles recording and excelling with artists like Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, The Rolling Stones, Clarence Carter, Etta James, The Allman Brothers, and dozens of others. However, their success wasn’t easy and much tragedy had to be endured, especially by the Muscle Shoals’ sound curator, Rick Hall.

What Camalier does exceptionally well with this documentary is detail a wide scope of coverage presented to the audience. Not only do we get to see in studio sessions through photographs and clips throughout interviews with various figureheads and musicians, but we become engulfed in the lives of those directly involved in the formation of Muscle Shoals. Hall’s childhood gets detailed through his own words and complicated by shots that relate to his tales. Camalier gives intimate insight further eliciting empathy through shots that wander through shotguns shacks or capture him standing in solitude on the side of roads. These shots are a means to put physical imagery to the dirt floored home he describes growing up in as well as the loneliness he endured after losing his first wife to a car crash.

Muscle Shoals is first and foremost a story about the area of Alabama that musically inspired many, then the studio that housed countless hits second. It brings into play the metaphysical anomalies of Muscle Shoals and other cities built on and around rivers or swamps, and furthermore the strange, innate connection between human life and water. Muscle Shoals details mystical and musical qualities that have tied humans to water for ages. Muscle Shoals is a testament to the power of music. During the time of the studio’s success America was undergoing a harsh and dramatic time. Yet, in the spirit of it all Muscle Shoals and FAME Studios led the example that despite color we are all humans capable of making beautiful art together. Music helped bring white studio players and black artists together to create monumental, legendary music that transcended color boundaries and into the homes of millions.

SEE IT. Then embark on the rewarding journey of listening to artists and their Muscle Shoals sessions.

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