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Film Review

Muscle Shoals

When I was in Vietnam during the war, I used to hear lots of popular music, often with a strong beat and a black flavor. Didn't really pay much attention to it, but it was always around as many troops listened to it. I still hear it occasionally, and it always reminds me of sandbags, tents, heat and dust. I never imagined that much of it could come from a tiny obscure town on the Tennessee River in northwestern Alabama: Muscle Shoals. Muscle Shoals was named for the abundance of river mussels, but is known (among us engineers) as the site of a major TVA hydroelectric dam. But for R&B and soul music fans, Muscle Shoals was the Garden of Eden, giving birth to a very distinctive, thoroughly American music, the Muscle Shoals sound, which was highly influential and still highly regarded.

However no one had documented this history on film until Greg Camalier, a real estate agent from Boulder, Colorado, was driving through the South in 2008, and loving black music, decided to stop in Muscle Shoals. He had never made a film but the people he met and the history he heard, made him decide to make a documentary film about a great story of American music: "Muscle Shoals". In a word, his film is wonderful. Camalier focuses on Rick Hall, a very poor white guy, Alabama native, with a sad family story that unfolds like a Greek tragedy. Then in 1960, Hall, determined to be "somebody", put together a studio and hired a band of local white guys, called the Swampers, to do the rhythm for local, and later, Northern black singers. Despite the often murderous events in the South in the struggle for civil rights, especially in Alabama, black singers flocked to his studio to record. Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Candi Staton, Etta James, Clarence Carter, and many others all had major hits recorded there. To a one, all of the black singers were astonished that the band was white when it sounded so black. This was revolutionary in Alabama, and they describe the reactions of townspeople when they all went out to eat, black and white together. And then describe the even more hostile reaction of the same townspeople to long haired "hippy" musicians, like Gregg Allman.

A few years later, Atlantic Records hired away the original Swampers but Hall rebuilt his band. In the late 1960's white stars like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards recored hits in Muscle Shoals, and later singers like Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers, Steve Winwood, Bob Seger, and even Bob Dylan. There are so many good on camera interviews with so many stars, all of whom acknowledge how ground breaking and important Rick Hall was in producing this music. Just listen to Candi Staton talk about how much she owes Hall. Or the prolonged interviews with Mick Jagger. The interviews with the three surviving Swampers are very sweet, juxtaposed with great archival footage and stills of their recording as very young guys. Hall finally forgave them for quitting, and there is a touching scene of each of them hugging Hall, all trying not to cry. Hall feels that there is something in the soil, in the river, in the culture, that made this unusual amalgam of music. Interspersed through the film is gorgeous footage of the river, the countryside, handsome steel bridges, and the small town, with its obligatory water tower, old warehouses, and the wailing freight trains passing through. These convey a real sense of place. There are still cotton fields but also now fields of sunflowers, which seems like a apt metaphor. The film ends with a powerful scene of Alicia Keys recording at the studio with the original Swampers, two generations older than Keys.

There is so much history, so much good music, and so many fine interviews packed into this film, that its 111 minutes go by in a flash. How could someone who had never made a film before do something so accomplished? The thing about this great film is that you don't have to know a thing about music to love what Camalier has put together here. It is magic and righteous, and rarely have I been so moved and left the theater so high as with "Muscle Shoals". You just have to see this, especially on the big screen. Opened a week ago, but it is still playing at Opera Plaza, the Shattuck (Berkeley) and the Rafael.

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