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Muscle Shoals (Magnolia Pictures, PG)

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Muscle-Shoals 75It’s well-chosen mix of present-day interviews and archival footage, enlivened by many musical selections.

Muscle-Shoals 500

Muscle Shoals, Alabama, is a town of about 12,000 people in the northwestern part of the state, near the borders with Tennessee and Mississippi. It’s also the home of the FAME recording studio, founded by Rick Hall (a Muscle Shoals native) in the late 1950s, where some of the most memorable songs in popular music history were recorded.

Small-town Alabama seems like an odd location for a recording studio, but Hall clearly knew what he was doing. Maybe it was the influence of the nearby Tennessee River, known by local Native Americans as the “Singing River.” Maybe it was the relaxed rural lifestyle, far removed the pressured atmosphere of New York City studios. Maybe it was the house band known as The Swampers that provided the extra-funky background to the hits, or maybe it was Hall’s perfectionist insistence on finding exactly the right sound for each song. Most likely, it was all these factors and then some more. Perhaps, as Bono speculates, the Muscle Shoals sound really does come out of the Alabama mud.

Muscle Shoals, the first feature film by director Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier, intercuts the story of the FAME studio with the life story of Hall, who has suffered enough misfortunes for several lifetimes — a brother died in a household accident at age three, his mother left the family to work as a prostitute, and his first wife died in a car accident — and of the Civil Rights Movement. With regard to the latter, the studio functioned as a neutral ground where African-American and white musicians worked together freely (indeed, some were surprised to find out how white the original house band and backup singers were), and Hall was a notable champion of African-American musicians, but outside it was still a segregated world, in practice far longer than it was in law.

A second studio, the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, opened in the late 1960s, and between them they recorded a regular murderer’s row of musicians, including Aretha Franklin (who credits the FAME studio with providing the atmosphere she needed to find her sound), Etta James, Bob Dylan, Jimmy Cliff, Little Richard, The Staples Singers, The Rolling Stones, Lynard Skynyrd, Wilson Pickett, and even Donny Osmond. Hits produced by the two studios include “Brown Sugar,” “Mustang Sally,” “I Never Loved a Man the Way That I Loved You,” and “Kodachrome.”

There aren’t a lot of surprises, formally or historically, in Muscle Shoals, but it’s a perfectly fine documentary telling the story of an important aspect of American musical history. If it avoids painful topics like the decline of both studios since their glory days, it’s still well worth seeing for it’s well-chosen mix of present-day interviews and archival footage, enlivened by many musical selections. Watching this film is like taking a pleasant journey down memory lane with some outstanding musicians.

Here’s a word for the wise: stay through the credits (the closing music is “Sweet Home Alabama,” which includes the lyrics “Now Muscle Shoal has got the Swampers, and they’ve been known to pick a song or two”) for a priceless clip of Hall expounding his philosophy of music. | Sarah Boslaugh

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