‘Muscle Shoals’ Review: Finding the Roots of R&B In a Magical Studio

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Editor’s note: With Muscle Shoals opening in limited release, please enjoy the sweet sounds of our Sundance review, originally published on January 26.

Rick Hall grew up in rural Alabama, but despite these simple roots, Hall always wanted to be somebody. Muscle Shoals tells the story of how he did become somebody when he founded FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, AL, and in doing so created a deep Southern sound that permeated the music industry, and still exists today. While many accredit this to the “magic” of the Tennessee River, it was the rhythm section Hall put together, called “The Swampers,” that created this unique sound in this unexpected place.

When you think of the locations of famous recording studios, you usually think of Los Angeles, New York City or London, but artists started flocking down south to FAME Studios thanks to The Swampers and Hall’s ability to recognize a hit song. The Swampers were a group of white musicians made up of David Hood (bass), Barry Beckett (keyboards), Roger Hawkins (drums), and Jimmy Johnson (guitar), who ended up creating the roots of this “funkier” style of music – which they claim only came about because they didn’t know how to “make it smooth.”

It was not just The Swampers and Hall that made a trip to Muscle Shoals so attractive to major artists; it was being away from the chaos of a big city and being able to experience a slower way of life. At the time, segregation still reigned supreme in Alabama and while the musicians and artists would get dirty looks from the townspeople whenever they would leave the studio to grab lunch together, inside the walls of Muscle Shoals everyone was “color blind,” more interested in making good music than worrying about the color of anyone’s skin. It was remarkable that in this little studio in the Deep South, acceptance and equality did exist and helped to create some of the industry’s most groundbreaking music.

Muscle Shoals is a solid music doc, but director Greg “Freddy” Camailer would have been better served to tighten the narrative a bit. There are certainly interesting interviews here from impressive artists, but it is almost overdone and causes the film to begin to lose its impact. However, it is amazing to see how this style and sound came to fruition as it changed the careers of artists like Aretha Franklin and created some of the most memorable albums and songs from artists like Etta James, The Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and The Allman Brothers (to name a few).

The Upside: An interesting look into a little known town that had a huge impact on music; compelling interviews from some of music’s most influential and prominent artists; great music from beginning to end that truly paints the picture of how the Muscle Shoals sound began to where it is today.

The Downside: With a runtime of 111 minutes, Muscle Shoals is a bit long and would have benefitted from a shorter edit that perhaps focused on a certain period in the studio’s history or did not dive so deeply into the stories of each artist who recorded there.

On the Side: The Swampers ended up leaving FAME Studios and Hall to start their own studio across town, the aptly named Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.

B+