When Judge Gordon Sullivan walks to his MP3 player, he considers it sole music.
The incredible true story of a small town with a big sound.
Everyone expects great things of the arts in New York City and Los Angeles. They're both huge population centers with lots of trade and immigration, which ensures a steady flow of ideas into and out of the area. Some smaller and/or non-coastal cities like Chicago and Memphis have contributed significantly to music culture because of their ability to trade sounds along the Mississippi. Nobody, however, expected anything of Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Especially not in the pre-Civil Rights era of the late 1950s, when "race music" was still a thing. Still, Rick Hall saw potential and founded FAME studios. Though beginnings were humble, the studio grew into a hit-making powerhouse, where black-and-white musicians came to harness what became known as "the Muscle Shoals sound." The list of famous recording artists who came through the area includes the names of just about every major rock or soul performer in the sixties and seventies, from the Osmonds to Wilson Pickett. Though the area's star waned in the eighties, it was added to the historic registry in 1997, and a twenty-first century resurgence in interest lead to a revival of sorts. Part of that movement is the documentary Muscle Shoals, which uses interviews to document the history and impact of the historic locale and its music.
Muscle Shoals is a documentary primarily comprised of interviews with those who impacted or were impacted by FAME Studios and the surrounding music culture of Muscle Shoals. Though a few of its more famous residents have gone to that great big studio n the sky, found Rick Hall is still around and kicking at 81. He's the real centerpiece of the film, not only for his intimate knowledge about the studio and its stars, but because he has a boundless enthusiasm for music and music culture. To supplement him, we get interviews with everybody from Bono to Aretha Franklin, along with the usual archival photos and various memorabilia.
There is a temptation with a documentary like this to stick to a single path, either with a pat history of the studio or with a bunch of testimonials. Muscle Shoals, however, does not take the easy road. To tell the story of FAME Studios, you have to tell the story of segregation, both physical and musical, and the ways that black-and-white musicians interacted in a racially tense country. Muscle Shoals doesn't back away from this history, incorporating discussions of the wider racial landscape into the history of the studio and that of individual hits or artists. This not only highlights the significance of the area musically, but it's importance to a wider culture.
The film also doesn't shy away from interviewing as many people as possible, and these are compelling in their own right. Hearing from the likes of Keith Richards and Gregg Allman about the atmosphere and importance of the studio to music culture is great. Also, when someone like Aretha Franklin recalls her recording some big hits there, it's compelling hearing a personal take on the stories behind some of the most famous popular music of the twentieth century.
Muscle Shoals (Blu-ray) is also strong. The 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is largely made up of contemporary video interviews, which looks sharp and colorful. Detail is fine, and the archival material looks as good as it can, depending on the source. It's not the most visually arresting movie, but this transfer supports the intention of the filmmaker just fine. The DTS-HD 5.1 track, however, is a feast. Of course the dialogue comes through clean and clear, but the original hits are where it's at for this track. There's lots of subwoofer shaking bass and good clarity and separation elsewhere in the spectrum. The surrounds aren't terribly necessary, but that's not much of a complaint with Muscle Shoals (Blu-ray).
Extras kick off with a commentary by director Greg "Freddy" Camalier that talks a bit about what drew him to the project. He's not as talkative as I'd like, but that's more than made up for on the commentary by FAME Studios regulars Rick Hall, Jimmy Johnson, David Hood, and Spooner Oldham. Muscle Shoals (Blu-ray) is worth buying for fans of the Muscle Shoals sound just for this commentary. The quartet are old friends, swapping stories and telling jokes for the film's running time. Then we get almost 30 minutes of deleted scenes and bonus interviews that tell a few more stories about the studio. The film's trailer is also included.
Perhaps the only complaint that can be made against Muscle Shoals is that its great strength is also its great weakness. There's a lot going on in the film's 111 minutes, and to try to tell a decades-long history of race relations, music culture, and the studio itself is a mighty task. Since Rick Hall could probably carry the whole film I can see how some would find the presence of other interviewees a distraction. That's especially true of some of the more tangential artists included (I'm thinking mostly of Bono, who obviously appreciates the Muscle Shoals sound but is only tangentially related to its history).
Muscle Shoals works by balancing all these elements with surprising ease. There's cultural history, musical history, and personal history all tied up in one neat package. That should be enough to attract hardcore Southern Soul fans, anyone interested in popular music, or those who just like a well-made documentary on an important part of world music culture.
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