Monday, August 11, 2014

DVD REVIEW: MUSCLE SHOALS (Guest Post)

MUSCLE SHOALS
Magnolia Pictures
(2013) 
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Michelle Wilson returns with
an insightful screen review.
THIS one, I gotta see!
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Muscle Shoals, Alabama likely would have been the last place in the world for the birth of not one, but two iconic recording studios. This sleepy little area on the shores of the Tennessee River encompasses a “magic” all its own, and “it’s like the songs come out of the mud,” as U2 frontman Bono suggests in this 111-minute documentary that chronicles the formation of Rick Hall’s FAME Studios and The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Sections’ (dubbed The Swampers) Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. The collaboration between black singers and white session players was virtually unheard of, but as Hall points out, “we were color blind” in the studio. Clarence Carter also reinforces this notion: “Music played a big part in changing people’s thoughts about race, especially in the South. Each time a person went to Muscle Shoals, they came out with a hit record. You had to know there was something magic in Muscle Shoals.” Carter goes further by explaining that there was no use of “Mr.” in the studio when addressing the white session players: “You just worked together. You never thought about who was white or who was black. You thought about the common thing and it was the music.” 

Rick Hall with Clarence Carter at FAME
Recording Studios, Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Chock full of interviews, commentary, photos and footage from various renowned recording sessions, the film offers a glimpse into how it all came to fruition. Additional insights are added by Jerry Wexler of Atlantic RecordsGregg Allman, and Jaimoe. The production is peppered with fascinating background stories and anecdotes too numerous to mention but definitely not to be missed. From Duane Allman’s slide guitar epiphany, to Aretha Franklin’s tension-filled sessions, to Etta James’ temper, to cutting tracks with the Rolling Stones and even to the rise of Lynyrd Skynyrd, there is so much packed into this movie that it warrants multiple viewings.

The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, 
or The Swampers, Muscle Shoals 
Sound Studio, Sheffield, Alabama.
Directed by Greg “Freddy” Camalier with interviews conducted by Stephen Badger, the film delves extensively into the tragic early life of Rick Hall, who was raised in extreme poverty almost solely by his father. A horrific accident led to the death of Hall’s young brother, and his mother left the family for a life steeped in prostitution. Hall vowed to rise above his situation and to make something of himself, and after a series of downfalls and further heartbreaks including the loss of his first wife in a car accident, Hall returned to Muscle Shoals and opened FAME.  With the words of his father always ringing in his ears, Hall didn’t just want to be good at something; he wanted to be the best. Infamous for a perfectionist work ethic and a quick temper, Hall could be “a joy and pain to work with,” as soul singer Candi Staton mentions. Hall’s first group of session players was so exceptional that they went on tour opening for The Beatles, and not long after Hall had to replace all of them as they graduated to bigger endeavors. It was his next group of session players, nicknamed The Swampers by Leon Russell producer Denny Cordell, who would help solidify Hall’s place in music history.

Aretha Franklin with The Swampers, FAME 
Recording Studios, Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
The film chronicles the partnership and eventual falling out between Hall and Wexler, which led to Hall signing a new contract with Capitol Records. No sooner had he closed the deal when his session players unilaterally decided to follow Wexler across town and open their own studio, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Comprised of bassist David Hood, guitarist Jimmy Johnson, drummer Roger Hawkins and late keyboardist Barry Beckett, The Swampers proceeded to perform on endless hit records for major acts. Johnson even received engineering credit on The Rolling Stones’ blues-based gem, Sticky Fingers, and is a major figure in this narrative with invaluable remarks throughout. Both recording studios found great success after parting ways, as Hall hired his third group of session players and even received the prodigious Producer of the Year award in 1971.

Wilson Pickett and Duane Allman, 
Atlantic Studios, New York City.
(Photo: Stephen Paley)
The one component that this in-depth feature may have lacked was a more thorough examination of Duane Allman. For as groundbreaking as his slide guitar work was as a session player and with the Allman Brothers Band, the coverage of him seemed a bit light. His innovative guitar style literally helped launch an entire music genre, not because playing slide was new, but because seemingly no one in a contemporary band had incorporated it into the music until Allman’s arrival. Due to his conservative nature, Hall was unaccustomed to Allman’s lifestyle and voiced his concerns about working with him to Phil Walden, co-founder of Capricorn Records who eventually would buy Allman’s contract from Hall and transform the Allman Brothers Band into a huge success. Walden advised Hall to stick it out and that Allman would make him millions, but as Hall admits, “I missed the boat on that one.” This was even after the famous Wilson Pickett session that, at Allman’s suggestion, spawned the remake of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” and as Swamper guitarist Jimmy Johnson states, “all of a sudden there was Southern rock.”

Bono succinctly sums up the essence of Muscle Shoals and its impact on not only the music industry, but also on the world: “If you look at the recording studios, they were humble shells. But what they contained was an empire that crossed race and creed, ethnicity. It was revolutionary.”

-Michelle Wilson
(August 2014)

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2 comments:

  1. Muscle-Shoals is an incredible film . It opened my eyes to the place were a whole lot of pretty awesome music was recorded! As an avid music listener and record collector, It actually gave me a reason to go back and re-listen to a bunch of great albums in a new light! The story was very cool, the interviews amazing, I really learned a lot!! Who knew Such an unassuming place could have such a rich and fantastic musical history!! I highly recommend this film , it for me was very very special!!

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    1. Thanks Ray -- well put! Michelle Wilson did a tremendous job with this review.

      -Chris

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