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Muscle Shoals

Posted by martinteller on November 18, 2013

So there’s this town called Muscle Shoals in Alabama where this dude named Rick Hill started a recording studio called Fame Studios.  A bunch of people made hit records there, including Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and Percy Faith.  Later some of the dudes from Rick’s house band split off and built a rival studio across the street, where they recorded The Rolling Stones and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

I apologize for the zero-effort description of this documentary, but I’m very very “meh” about it.  There are a few amusing or interesting anecdotes, but the film gets bogged down in repetitiveness.  Hill and his gang talk about the great artists they worked with, the great artists talk about how awesome it was, repeat.  Most of it is the same thing, over and over again.  The movie is simply too long for what it has to say.  There are attempts to pump up Hill as an intriguing character, but his stories about childhood tragedies — while sad– fail to make him a compelling figure and always feel shoehorned in for no good reason.  Speaking of shoehorns, what the hell is Bono doing here and why should we care about his pompous and ridiculous mythologizing?

The photography is nice, with a consistent use of shallow focus that creates some pleasant images… although some are staged to present an air of forced importance (look at the BIG ROOMS these guys are sitting in!).  I was most intrigued by the wealth of archival footage available… apparently these guys liked to film themselves.  A lot.  I also liked the conflict that develops, which has you rooting for one side at first and then being happy that both parties found success.  And of course it goes without saying that the music is great (most of it, that is).  The soundtrack should do some good business.

I was mildly discomforted by the amount of time devoted to emphasizing that Hill’s stable of musicians was white.  Interviewee expresses surprise that such funky sounds came from white people, still photo of nerdy-looking white dudes, big laugh from the audience.  While I appreciate that the film is trying to deflate racial stereotypes, at what point is it actually encouraging them by using them for laughs.  Even though it’s meant to be positive, there’s too often a sense that we’re expected to be surprised that people were busting out of their pre-defined musical boxes… and we shouldn’t be.  We shouldn’t find it funny that a fat white guy with glasses can lay down some swampy grooves.  But perhaps I’m overthinking the issue.

I recommend the first half of this movie.  After that, it becomes too much of the same thing, even with the added twist of the Fame Studios/Muscle Shoals Sound split.  I am both more curious about Dave Grohl’s similar documentary Sound City now to see how it compares… and more apprehensive that it may fall into the same traps.  If nothing else, the roster of interviewees looks more intriguing.  Rating: Fair (61)


2 Responses to “Muscle Shoals”

  1. Clearly you care for or know little about the subject matter—soul music. The notion that muzak meister Percy Faith recorded in Muscle Shoals is laughable. I suspect you intended to refer to Percy Sledge.

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