Recent scientific research has shown that it is impossible to keep still during the first ten minutes of "Muscle Shoals." Moments after Bono's opening lines echo across the stunning colors and textures of northwestern Alabama's verdant riverbanks, Wilson Pickett's "Land of 1,000 Dances" kicks in and you can't help but shake loose. It is immediately clear just how much soul this film possesses, having gleaned character and zeal from its many revered subjects.
"Deep down in your stomach, coming out of your gut. That's that Muscle Shoals sound." —Candi Staton
Having first seen "Muscle Shoals" at the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham last summer—appropriately showcased at the Alabama Theatre—I was excited to hear that the film was also the opening night selection for the 2014 Macon Film Festival. Macon—although much larger of a city and with a less musically synonymous name than Muscle Shoals—has a rich and diverse musical history, even claiming home to Georgia's Music Hall of Fame. I knew the crowd in Macon would love "Muscle Shoals," and I was right. In the Q&A following the film, I can't tell you how many times an audience member (or one of the moderators) tried to cajole director Freddy Camalier into making a follow-up film about Macon. I guess it could work—he already has Gregg Allman's contact information.
Impressively enough, the visuals of "Muscle Shoals" are as striking as the music on display. The kudzu, sawmills, rivers, sunflowers and cotton fields produce some beautiful imagery alongside the smooth interview shots with some of rock 'n' roll's most celebrated musicians. Particularly fascinating are the segments featuring Aretha Franklin and Gregg Allman—perhaps two of the best examples of how Muscle Shoals helped launch and shape their careers. Etta James, The Rolling Stones and Bob Seger were just a few additional highlights out of the dozens of featured legends.
The film's central character, Rick Hall, led a dramatic life even outside of his success in the recording industry. While his personal narrative is important to the story, I can't help but feel that the film's flow is interrupted during a few of his more somber segments. Nonetheless, moments like the recording of The Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" or Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird" are powerful enough to pull anyone back in. While Alicia Keys seems a bit out of her league during her interviews—nothing against her, she's just the only interviewee that you can't quite designate as a legend (yet)—by the time she closes out the film with a cover of Bob Dylan's "Pressing On," you'll be in a sublime state of mind. However, it's not until during the credits—when "Sweet Home Alabama" kicks in—that you really feel like the film is complete.
"Muscle Shoals" is a slick and exceptionally pieced-together music documentary. Incredible archive footage and photos go hand-in-hand with interviews and original content that really display the passion that director Freddy Camalier feels for this music. An experiential film—"Muscle Shoals" will leave you with the type of high that you feel at your favorite band's concert.
4 out of 5 stars.