Netflix UK film review: Muscle Shoals
The beating heart of the narrative9
Ian Loring | On 11, Sep 2014
Director: Greg “Freddy” Camalier
Cast: Rick Hall, Bono, Keith Richards, many other musicians
Watch: Muscle Shoals online in the UK: Netflix UK
Continuing an interesting subset of music documentaries (in which Dave Grohl recently indulged himself with Sound City), Muscle Shoals focuses not on a musician or a genre of music but instead a studio and the man behind it.
The beginning of the film points in a different direction to where it actually heads – a host of big names adorn the credits, Bono, Keith Richards, Aretha Franklin, to name a few. However, aside from a bit of commentary about the times in which the story is set, which somewhat unwisely has Bono talking about race relations when there are a lot more suitable cast members who could do that, these names aren’t really the heart and soul of the film.
Rather, we are told the story of Rick Hall, founder of the Fame studio their music is recorded in, a man who is a poster child for succeeding in the face of severe adversity. A traumatic childhood forged by a horrific accident involving his brother, which led to parental recriminations, Hall later faced more tragedy with the death of his wife. Despite all this, he was driven by a fire in him to do better than what would have been expected of him.
This rather despairing story, which is a little haphazardly dropped in throughout the film, gives a beating heart to the rather more traditional music documentary material. There is pleasure to be found with the participants going into technical details you don’t often see – the discussion of how many famous soul songs had backing vocals by men you would imagine have two kids and a lawn if you looked at them is fantastic – but sometimes, the reminiscing moves into rather more generic territory, with Keith Richards banging on about the shape of the room and Grateful Dead member Donna Jean Godchaux floating around talking about the vibe of the place; insights that fail in being all that insightful.
What is fascinating, though, is the way that so many different types of music found a home in Muscle Shoals. Be it soul, southern fried rock or the early recordings of Jimmy Cliff, they all seem to be at a piece with the place. The film doesn’t seem to get a firm handle on why that might be, but the isolation and relative peace of it seems to be something that the musicians really get into. There is also no denying that the music within the piece is fantastic – again spanning genres – and with the colourful commentary of the musicians, you start to feel ethereal connective tissue between them within the differing sounds (something that may be created more through effective editing but is delightful nonetheless).
Muscle Shoals is not one of the “great” music documentaries. The more successful material of the film regards Rick Hall and his perfectionism rather than the music itself and, thankfully, is more than engaging enough to get you through nearly two hours of fun, if a tad uninspired, stories from other participants. Muscle Shoals is two-thirds interesting, one-third infomercial, but has a strong beating heart.