Soul, pop, and folk rise from the mud of Muscle Shoals

Jan 16, 2014

2013 was a fairly phenomenal year for music documentaries, with such stand-outs as Twenty Feet From Stardom and A Band Called Death. Another worthy title to add to that list is Muscle Shoals, filmmaker Greg "Freddy" Camalier's portrait of the little Alabama that produced some of the biggest hits and most enduring anthems of all time. See at at The Riviera Theatre in Three Rivers through February 1st.

You name 'em, they probably recorded here at one time or another: Bob Seger, Steve Winwood, Linda Ronstadt, Lou Rawls, Carlos Santana, Paul Simon, John Prine -- even the Osmonds and Cher. For decades, stars truly fell on Alabama and this engaging documentary is saturated with the sensational songs that, as one Muscle Shoals veteran notes, seemed to "come out of the mud."

"Magic is the word that comes to mind when I think of Muscle Shoals," says Bono of U2, and Camalier clearly agrees. He travels back to the 1960s, when the blues-driven sounds of Muscle Shoals began to travel across the country and even across the Atlantic. The Rolling Stones had a major hit in the U.K. with "You Better Move On," a cover of an R&B classic from Alabama-born singer-songwriter Arthur Alexander. Meanwhile, John Lennon was obsessed with trying to recreate Alexander's distinctive bass sound in The Beatles.

Camalier does a solid job of serving up wonderful background material. One of the pivotal moments in Muscle Shoals' rise to prominence came when a young lady from Detroit came calling. For five years, Aretha Franklin had recorded for Columbia Records, which unsuccessfully tried to package her as everything from an African-American answer to Barbra Streisand to a jazzy supper-club songstress. Without a hit to her name, Franklin headed to Muscle Shoals and teamed up with producer Jerry Wexler. In no time, she was creating seminal soul records, like I Never Loved a Man The Way That I Love You, Chain of Fools and, of course, Respect. It's amusing to learn that the players laying down those gritty grooves behind the Queen of Soul were mostly white guys who, as one observer recalls, looked like they could have been working in a supermarket.

Like a savory Southern stew, Muscle Shoals brought together a variety of enticing ingredients, from soul superstars to hippies to pop princesses. This was also the birthplace of Southern rock and the launching pad for acts like the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd. (Yes, whether you revere it as a timeless classic or an endless nightmare of a jam, you have Muscle Shoals to thank for "Freebird.")

It was also, somewhat surprisingly, the spot where The Rolling Stones laid down some of their finest performances ever, such as "Brown Sugar." Mick Jagger and Keith Richards share their fond memories of the Muscle Shoals experience, and Camalier gives Stones fans a terrific treat: footage of Mick and company listening to the playback of a demo version of "Wild Horses," another Muscle Shoals track. Richards wonders aloud if some of the band's other timeless tunes, like "Gimme Shelter" and "Jumping Jack Flash," might have been a little bit funkier if they'd been recorded in Muscle Shoals. Based on the evidence Camalier presents here, the answer is almost certainly yes.