This is a film about music made and recorded in the eponymous Alabama. It was also about the star producer/recording engineer (one Rick Hall) there and about the musicians who started off as his house band before going off to set up their own rival studio (they acquired the name the Swampers). It was a subject I knew next to nothing about before seeing the film. I do not think I was even aware of this Muscle Shoals place or its recording studios, though once I saw the film I realised that I knew loads of music recorded there.
The film tells an interesting enough story, Mr Hall and the Swampers being oddly fascinating in their ordinariness. Or maybe they are all actually crazy guys and the film just made them come across as people with the temperament of shipping clerks. But even if they were not drøg-addled shaggers there was a clear sense of all of these people as being deeply committed to their music. Hall comes across as a rather intense and driven character, the musicians as considerably more easy-going - I can see why they might ultimately have been happier not working with him. All of these guys are white as well, despite the classic Muscle Shoals records having been made by black artists.
There were however some unsatisfying aspects to this documentary. My beloved pointed out one big problem - for all that people in it kept going on about the importance of Muscle Shoals as a place, the film gives very little sense of what that place is like. Is it a little town or village? Or is it a purely rural area with a building here and a building there but no civic centre? Another problem with the film was that it begins with U2's Bongo telling us all about soul music and the Muscle Shoals sound. And then he kept reappearing throughout. I do not know why he was in the film. There were other white talking heads in the film, but they had all recorded in Muscle Shoals. If Bongo had ever been there, he kept pretty quiet about it. And for all his willingness to talk about anything I find it hard to take Bongo seriously as a purveyor of wisdom about soul music and old-school R&B. That said, I have heard him say more annoying things than anything he said in this film; it was more the incongruity of his very presence that jarred with me.
The film is also a bit slick, which ran rather counter to the gritty subject matter. From the first shots of the fields around Muscle Shoals it was obvious that this was a documentary with a big budget, far removed from cheapo music documentaries like Art Will Save The World. Yet I bet its actual budget was probably comparable to films like Beware of Mr Baker or Searching for Sugarman, for all that neither of those managed to end up feeling as polished and almost clinical as this.
But I should not be overcritical. A real strength of the documentary is that it features loads of great music. You know, loads of soul classics and stuff, I love it. Also southern rock, a genre of music I find increasingly fascinating. After seeing this film I found myself wanting to acquire a load of records:
- The Aretha Franklin record she partially recorded in Muscle Shoals before decamping to New York to finish it with the Swampers.
- The Wilson Picket album with his cover version of 'Hey Jude'. The fragment played from this sounded incredible.
[the whole thing sounds great too, particularly after the break - Picket's voice and Duane Allman's guitar playing off each other… Jesus]
- Partially inspired by the previous and without any direct link to Muscle Shoals, that Ace compilation of Black America singing the songs of Lennon and McCartney
- That SoulJazz compilation of Southern Rock. Yeeeharrrr! One fascinating thing (that everyone else probably knows already) that I discovered from the film was that the main Allman Brother started off as a session player in Muscle Shoals, allegedly persuading Wilson Picket to cover 'Hey Jude'. Lynyrd Skynyrd also recorded material there.
Mentioning Lynyrd Skynyrd brings me to an item that the film touched on a bit but did not really engage with that much - race. In this regard it was rather different to a documentary I saw some of at an ATP about Stax. As noted above, Rick Hall and the Swampers were all white, yet he artists they worked with initially were all black. There is a casual mention of them working in the studio as equals and of eating out together, attracting some dirty looks from the good (white) folk of Muscle Shoals (though it is mentioned that the dirtiest looks they got was when they were in diners with long hairs like Allman or Lynyrd Skynyrd). We also have Bongo shiteing on about how the integrated nature of the Muscle Shoals studios somehow brought about an end to racial problems in the USA. BUT - for all the racial bonhomie the film mentions, footage shows Lynyrd Skynyrd playing concerts with a Southern Cross emblem behind them. The film completely fails to engage with whether this is in any way problematic, which I feel is a shame.
Some final random points:
1. Rick Hall's life of woe almost becomes a bit comedic as the film goes along. There is a certain way they would shoot and light things when he was telling a story that was not going to end well that would make this film very parodyable if you were someone with hard heart and cold blood.
2. Keith Richards is a very engaging interviewee. Unlike Bongo he actually did record in Muscle Shoals (and asserts that he would have come back if he hadn't been barred from the States at the time due to drøg busts etc.) and he does give the impression of knowing what he was talking about with respect to black American music. There is a great bit of footage of him in a Muscle Shoals studio with the Rolling Stones back in the day, tapping his toe and mouthing along while Jagger sings 'Wild Horses'.
3. The film went a bit overboard on trippy shots of fields of wheat or corn pulsing as the wind blew through them; I felt at times like I was having a flashback to Ben Wheatley's A Field in England.
4. The young Aretha Franklin really was amazing - astonishingly talented and stunningly good looking, even if further developments suggest that like a lot of people she never really knew what to do with her gifts.
5. The film also introduced me to popular recording artist Alicia Keys, exposure to whom I have thus far somehow escaped. I think she shows up in the film because they realise that they have too many crackers explaining black music to us so maybe it is about time they wheeled in someone from the world of African-Americans. I thought Ms Keys was at least somewhat interesting, suggesting a certain continuity with the glory days of soul music etc.. Irene thought she was rubbish, however, suggesting that yet again I have been led astray by a pretty face and engaging manner.
Muscle Shoals poster image source
Aretha Franklin image source
An inuit panda production