It’s not too early think about movie fare in the New Year, and one of the highlights of the upcoming season is the new music documentary Muscle Shoals. Originally premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, it’s now featured as the first offering in Available Light Cinema’s January lineup.
Muscle Shoals is a vibrant and loving tribute to the music that came out of a small recording studio in rural northern Alabama in the 1950s and ’60s, which left its mark forever on the world of contemporary rock, pop, and rhythm and blues.
It’s also the story of a driven man, a bevy of recording stars whose music crystallized in his Fame Studio, and the amazing band that provided the backbone of their hits. The man is southern-born producer and recording executive Rick Hall, now 81 and still going strong. The band is the Swampers, and the musicians they’ve backed up include Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Paul Simon, Jimmy Cliff, and the Rolling Stones, to name a handful.
Opening his film with beautiful cinematography, first-time director Greg Director Greg “Freddy” Camalier sets the scene, with spectacular shots of the Alabama backwoods and the sun reflecting off the shores of the rolling Tennessee River.
He then introduces Hall, a true self-made man, who grew up in poverty and rose to become a recording industry kingmaker. For the film’s duration we’re treated to a potpourri of archival footage, memorable interviews, and a stirring soundtrack of the hits that shaped a generation.
Hall recounts how an impoverished childhood helped shape his ambition.
“We just kind of grew up like animals,” he says. “It made me bitter and driven. I wanted to be somebody.”
For Hall, the hardships of sleeping on a straw mattress in a backwoods Alabama shack were intensified by the tragedies that struck his family. He was the son of a rural sawmiller, whose wife abandoned him and his two children and ended up working in a bordello. At four, Hall lost his older brother, who died after scalding himself. When Hall married in 1955, he lost his new bride, then only 16, in a car accident. Two weeks later, his father died, when a tractor he was driving overturned.
The film highlights how Aretha Franklin, then recording jazz standards and show tunes for Columbia and getting nowhere, arrived in Muscle Shoals in January 1967. There she recorded “I Never Loved A Man,” the song that truly launched her career as a soul diva for Atlantic Records. She left the studio the next day, never to return.
Franklin’s husband and manager balked when one of the horn players in the all-white backup band made a racial slur about Franklin. Things got severely out of hand from there, and culminated in Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler pulling Franklin out of the session, and leaving with her to return to New York. He had intended for her to record an entire album, but only got as far as the first cut, which turned out to be a major hit.
Nevertheless, Hall’s professional relationship with Wexler ended abruptly, and his hopes of producing Franklin for Atlantic were also brought to a standstill. Shortly afterward, The Swampers left Hall to start a rival recording studio with financial backing from Wexler.
The saga of Wexler and Hall is just one of the music industry stories that makes Muscle Shoals such an entertaining and absorbing film for those who lived through the era, and those who wish they had.
Muscle Shoals plays at 6 p.m. Sunday, January 12, 2014 at the Yukon Arts Centre.