The second of two Sundance documentary preems about legendary recording enclaves, “Muscle Shoals” is the sober, dignified, slightly stiff grown-up version to Dave Grohl’s giddily starstruck, perma-adolescent “Sound City.” Paying tribute to the titular northern Alabama burg that’s home to world-famous recording studios, as well as to the men who shaped them and the artists who shone there, Greg Camalier’s debut feature offers a worthy if sometimes ponderous take on a significant slice of U.S. popular music history. Broadcast sales should be hale.
A regional musician dumped from his combo for being all work and no play, Rick Hall opened Fame Studio in Florence, Ala., in the late 1950s. Its second, better-known location, in Muscle Shoals, scored an immediate hit with the first single recorded there, Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On”; that song would also become a 1964 U.K. chart-topper for the Rolling Stones, who later would make their own pilgrimage to Muscle Shoals. Subsequent R&B breakthroughs included Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” several tracks by brilliant but temperamental Wilson Pickett, and the string of hits that made Aretha Franklin a superstar after she’d been mishandled and dropped by Columbia Records. She was brought to the studio by producer Jerry Wexler, a frequent Hall collaborator until they had a falling out.
Beyond the inscrutables of acoustic and atmospheric “feel,” Fame was sought after because its inhouse rhythm sections were so funky that visitors often marveled that (in their first two incarnations) the group consisted wholly of local white musicians. When the mid-to-late 1960s session lineup known as “the Swampers” left to start its own studio across town — an equal success — Hall simply assembled a new, more racially integrated resident band dubbed “the Fame Gang.”
Between both locations, otherwise sleepy small-town Muscle Shoals continued to churn out an amazing catalog of hit records (more rock- and pop-oriented) through the 1970s, encompassing everything from the Osmonds and Paul Anka to Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart and Bob Seger. It also largely birthed “Southern rock,” recording early tracks by the Allman Brothers and Lynrd Skynyrd.
Rather than building involvement, though, the pic tends to chug along on the same episodic plane, prevented from building its own rhythm by incorporating too many themes that never quite mesh as one narrative. Beyond the studios themselves and their legendary recordings (a chronicle that pretty much stops circa 1980, though we do see Alicia Keys record a new gospel track), Camalier juggles perspectives on period racial politics, the region’s history, the romance of rural Southern life, tragedies in Hall’s personal life, and more. But these too often feel like clunky digressions.
Meanwhile, the overstuffed pic offers little to no insight on Hall’s acrimonious splits with Wexler (duly interviewed here) and his esteemed backup players. There are far too many fussily iconic, slo-mo shots of musicians backlit against sunsets; there’s also too much of Bono, who’s ever-ready to pontificate, but is not an ideal commentator on the soulfulness of African-American popular music.
Still, music lovers will get plenty of thrills hearing first-hand accounts of how such classic tracks as Aretha’s “Respect,” the Stones’ “Brown Sugar, Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” and “Sweet Home Alabama,” et al. were created. In addition to the starry lineup of interviewees — Pickett, Etta James and Keith Richards are among the most entertaining — the docu offers plenty of archival concert, TV, promo and behind-the-scenes footage.
Assembly is high-grade, at times almost too glossy, with the many picture-postcard views of the surrounding countryside tending to smooth over the gritty edge that distinguished Muscle Shoals’ most memorable music.