If you are a fan of the classic rock or R & B music of the last 50 years or more, there’s a good chance you will love the new documentary Muscle Shoals: The Incredible True Story of a Small Town with a Big Sound. Centering on a town—Muscle Shoals, Alabama—and a man—producer Rick Hall—the movie takes us through the golden years of music that was, incredibly, recorded in a small town, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but, to be more exact, the far northwest corner of Alabama, a place unto itself but in the same region as those famous centers of music, Nashville and Memphis.
That sense of place is important, as the film makes clear, and it has no doubt contributed, in some mysterious way, to the amazing production of music there, with artists ranging from Wilson Pickett to Aretha Franklin to Alicia Keys. Director Greg Camalier uses archival footage and photos and a wide gamut of music to tell us how Rick Hall (see photo), overcoming several tragedies in his personal life, including poverty and death and, starting humbly with a small studio, went on to record the giants of popular music. But he didn’t do it alone—he had the amazing help of The Swampers, a group of white, Alabama-born musicians who very often surprised the African-American singers they were backing with the talent and harmony they found with the singers. We learn all this through the words of Hall and his musicians, but also through interviews with a number of the great singers who recorded there, including Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Aretha Franklin, Etta James and Clarence Carter, as well as Steve Winwood and Bono.
“Muscle Shoals” inspires the viewer both in the presentation of some great music, but also in its celebration of how that music, in many different ways, can bring people together, can chase away sorrows and even bridge long-held racial divides. It shines a bright light on yet another hidden corner of the cultural landscape of America.