film review: muscle shoals

jason isbell & the 400 unit @ the national

I’ve been thinking about Jason Isbell a lot lately.

For a couple of reasons: first, writing about the origins of blog name sent me looking through 2009 photos for some good ones of Jason; I haven’t photographed him since then, so it was a trip down memory lane for the shows I did. Second, because of his stellar new record Southeastern, which brought me back to his music, new and old, for the first time since, well, 2009. And third, because of this film, because though he’s moved up to Nashville, when I think of Muscle Shoals, I think of Jason Isbell, and I think of the Drive-By Truckers.

Mostly because of this film.

I had never heard of Muscle Shoals before I was introduced to the Truckers and their music. It turned out that I knew plenty about the music that was made there, but like most people, I didn’t know the Shoals, where I did know Detroit and Memphis.

“you’re gonna hear some of the greatest voices ever.”

Freddy Camalier’s doc is beautifully shot, to start with. It is a visual love letter to a part of Alabama that most people don’t think twice about. The interspersing of nature shots works for me because it highlights the isolation of that part of the country and makes double magic what happened and happens there. Bono talks about the music coming out of rivers, and I can believe it; that’s why those shots work. It ties the history of the place as a place to the history of the place as a soul mecca, which is necessary.

The immediacy of Rick Hall’s cutting his first track in Muscle Shoals is so important, and it’s paid proper tribute in the film, with testimony from luminaries like Keith Richards (<3 Keef). (There are some serious mustaches in this film.) Aretha talking about the groove and funk of the Swampers is cut with her vocals in a lovely enforcing ways. The magic of Percy Sledge sort accidentally luckily cutting ‘When A Man Loves A Woman’ there.

The discussion of the civil rights movement, and race — Wilson Pickett uses the word peckerwood to describe FAME Studios owner and producer Rick Hall — is well handled and even, though a little shoved to the side. The music is the focus, as it should be, but I would have been interested to hear more about the white band that backed these great African American soul musicians. Or not the band, but the interaction of the two. I loved the Aretha through line of the film; “one of those songs”. It seems that so much of the music made in Muscle Shoals was one of those songs.

It’s a great film; it runs at almost 2 hours and drags a bit in places because of that, but it’s worth watching, if you’re a fan of the music that it focuses on, or you’re a fan of the new music coming out of North Alabama (Alabama in general, really). Muscle Shoals was and is formative to American music today, and this documentary centers on that: how a small town in the middle of nowhere became so important. It does that, and it does it well.

Muscle Shoals opens at the Carolina Theatre in Durham tonight. You should go see it.

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