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In Birmingham They Love the Gov'ner: "Muscle Shoals" Reviewed

Infield Single

                    “Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers

And they’ve been known to pick a song or two

Lord they get off so much

Pick me up when I’m feeling blue

Now how about you?”

 There is a wonderful story to be told about Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where a group of white Southern musicians created some of the most exciting and enduring music ever recorded.  However, the new documentary Muscle Shoals misses the mark so consistently that the filmmakers took what should have been an easy grand slam and turned it into an infield base hit.

 Rick Hall, described early in the movie by Keith Richards as “a total maniac,” was the visionary for Muscle Shoals.  Hall grew up in abject poverty and his mother left the family when he was a young boy to work as a prostitute.  Hall worked as a musician when he was in his twenties and worked in a publishing company with the future legendary Nashville producer Billy Sherrill as a young man.  In the early 1960s, Hall assembled a band and produced the Arthur Alexander hit “You Better Move On.”  After his success with Alexander, Hall built his Fame recording studio and developed a business relationship with Jerry Wexler after Stax Records stopped doing session work for other labels.

 In the film, Hall comes across as someone that possessed great determination, a brilliant mind for production, and no small amount of ego.  Like Phil Spector, Hall was a perfectionist that could spend days working on the arrangement and recording of a particular song.  No fan of improvisation, he completely missed out on the Allman Brothers due to his unwillingness to modify his approach to the recording process.  The movie contains lengthy remembrances by Hall, a few of which seem a bit embellished for dramatic purposes. 

 Muscle Shoals benefits from wonderful access to archival photo and videos.  Seeing the Rolling Stones leave an Alabama Holiday Inn in 1971, fully decked out in rock star regalia, was wonderfully droll, I personally loved Gregg Allman’s remembrance of Duane’s Coricidin bottle guitar slide, and the music throughout is absolutely thrilling.  The movie works much better as a lengthy MTV video than as a documentary.  The filmmakers rely extensively on unnecessary celebrity validation.  There is no context provided by critics, scholars, or members of the community, yet Bono blathers endlessly about “grit” and “blood” and Alicia Keys contributes banal platitudes.  The movie is bloated with pretentiously staged shots and there is seldom more than one perspective given on the recordings or business matters. Hearing Steve Winwood’s concept of the importance of “landscaping” to the development of music is not a valid substitute for a compelling/thematic narrative direction.

So, watch the movie with these limitations in mind or just stay at home and blast Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1,000 Dances” at earth shaking volume.  The history is all in the grooves.

 Grade – B

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