Muscle Shoals Review

Film Still
  • Muscle Shoals film still


Exceptional music, unexceptional documentary on the swampy sounds of the famous Tennessee backing band.

Access is everything in director Greg Camalier’s festival hit Muscle Shoals, a documentary charting the rise and rise of the eponymous FAME records studio on the banks of the Tennessee River. Boasting an array of talking heads as impressive as the back-to-back stream of hits that first reverberated within the studio’s modest walls, Camalier sets out to answer a question posed in the film’s opening moments: “How does that big music come out of such a small place?”And what music.

This film is about the artists who fought for a piece of what came to be defined as ‘The Muscle Shoals Sound’, a “greasy slice of rhythm n’ blues” courtesy of house band The Swampers, the unlikeliest bunch you’d expect to come up with the likes of Wilson Pickett’s ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ or Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’. As Bono puts it, “People arrived at Muscle Shoals expecting to meet these black guys, but they were a bunch of white guys who looked like they worked at the supermarket”.

With constant recourse to shallow-focus tableaux of the studio’s natural surroundings, seemingly sponsored by the Alabama Tourist Board and Jack Daniels, Muscle Shoals doesn’t entirely bear the weight of its two-hour running time. Camalier’s decision to document a comprehensive history of the studio could have been better served by a tighter focus, just as an extended series of anecdotes from Mick n’ Keef on The Stones’ ‘Brown Sugar’ and ‘Wild Horses’ sessions deserve a documentary of their own. Finally though, if you’re looking for the best reason to see Muscle Shoals, Keith Richards nails it: “It’s in the grooves, man”.

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