Tonight I went to a screening of “Muscle Shoals,” a documentary about the rich, fertile musical ground that is the 8,000-person small town in Alabama.
It’s the story of Fame Studios founder Rick Hall, whose life story alone plays out like a Shakespearean tragedy in many ways, and his drive to rise from abject poverty and create something lasting, his feud with Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler that almost ends his career, as well as with his competition with Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, the recording facility started by members of The Swampers, the ace session musicians he hired who eventually decided to start their own rival studio in town.
But mainly, it’s about the glorious music: Whether it was Wilson Pickett recording “Land of 1,000 Dances,” Percy Sledge entering a studio for the first time to sing “When A Man Loves A Woman” or Aretha Franklin improvising “I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You” at Fame, or the Rolling Stones recording “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” at Music Shoals Sound Studio, the same place where Lynyrd Skynyrd made “Freebird” and Paul Simon, “Kodachrome,” there was clearly something magical in the small town on the banks of the Tennessee River during the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Talking heads like Bono, who seems to understand America and her culture better than most natives, Keith Richards, Aretha Franklin, Alicia Keys, and Percy Sledge (as well as Hall and the members of the Swampers and other legendary musicians) talk with wonder about the records created in the sleepy Alabama town with such love and joy, that it’s infectious.
Plus, the stories are fascinating. Time and time Hall gets knocked down via some petty feud, his own stubbornness, or an unbelievable amount of bad luck, but every time he manages to rise again, while across town, his former session players, after a rough start, ride their studio’s success to incredible heights.
There have been so many great music documentaries this year, including “Sound City” and “Twenty Feet From Stardom,” but “Muscle Shoals” has been my favorite so far.
Distributed by Magnolia Pictures, “Muscle Shoals” opens theatrically next month. Profits from the film will go to Mr. Holland’s Opus, which donates musical instruments to children in schools (and to whom I’ve already given) and to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, which is helping to ensure that Muscle Shoals’ story continues to be told. Today’s $10 goes to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.
Aug. 15: Alabama Music Hall of Fame
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