Saturday, April 19, 2014

Muscle Shoals: Mud & Soul

Record collectors are prone to strange fetishes. A vintage Blue Note with an “ear” impressed in the dead wax can still fix ridiculous sums. It probably makes more sense to innocent bystanders when we obsess over recording studios. After all, that is where the magic originally happened. FAME Studios is one such storied shrine. It was there producer Rick Hall fostered a distinctive sound that made soul so much more soulful and midwifed what we now consider “Southern Rock.” Greg “Freddy” Camalier chronicles the man, his studio, and the sound in Muscle Shoals (promo here), which airs this Monday on PBS as part of the current season of Independent Lens.

Ironically, many fans do not realize Hall and his original studio ensemble, The Swampers, were all white cats. Regardless of listeners’ racial preconceptions, they directly contributed to some of the greatest hits waxed by artists like Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Candi Staton, Clarence Carter, Etta James, and Percy Sledge. When we talk of hits, we are referring to classics like “When a Man Loves a Woman” and “Land of 1,000 Dances.”

While many of the great Muscle Shoals recording artists grace Camalier’s film, he focuses on Hall as his protagonist. His producing touch might be golden, but Hall’s formative years were just as hardscrabble as that of any delta bluesman. Abandoned by his mother early on, Hall has faced more than his share of adversity throughout his life. Although he is clearly reserved by nature, when Hall opens up, it is heavy stuff. In fact, his resilience becomes a source of inspiration.

Camalier integrates enough historical context to establish the wider cultural significance of FAME Studios without belaboring the point. He also scored some pretty impressive sit-downs with the likes of Franklin, Carter, and Keith Richards, which he stages in visually intriguing settings. However, the interstitial music never sounds very Muscle Shoalsy. He also over-indulges attempts to explain the local sound in spiritual terms. Sometimes poetic, these often descend into New Aginess corniness (to quote Jobim: “it’s the mud, it’s the mud”).

Muscles Shoals tells an important story with more style than the average music documentary. It is entertaining in a jukebox kind of way, but also compelling on a human level. Recommended for fans of soul, swampy R&B, and the Allman Brothers (who will probably not be seeing Midnight Rider anytime soon), Muscle Shoals premieres on most PBS stations this coming Monday (4/21), courtesy of Independent Lens.