In his book Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, Steve Almond writes, “The only thing wrong with music, as far as I’m concerned, is that you cannot eat it.” I’ve never read anything that so perfectly expressed the way I feel about music. So it won’t surprise you that I am in love with the music documentary. It so often combines many of my favorite things: behind-the-scenes music experience, music interviews, music history, insane/brilliant/drugged out/maniacal musicians. The Rockumentary offers me an inside look at a world I adore so much and of which I will only ever be a peripheral part. (Note: I date the drummer, who in this circumstance is not Ginger Baker (thankfully) and so does not usually warrant his very own documentary.)
I am also in love with what a friend of mine calls “enchanted objects,” something (or someone) with special powers, which on the surface may appear to be one thing, but is so much more underneath, where the very existence of that thing holds some magical, universally charged extra weight.
Muscle Shoals, Magnolia Pictures’ documentary about legendary music makers FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, shines its bright investigative light on both the music and the magic.
In the 1950s, when Muscle Shoals, Alabama, claimed just over a thousand residents, Rick Hall started FAME Studios above a drug store. In the coming years, Hall would take a large part in harnessing and producing what would become the Muscle Shoals sound. Hall himself a force to be reckoned with – described as a strong-willed, overbearing perfectionist (I can relate) – seems to me the only man who could have wielded what Jimmy Cliff called the “field of energy” that surrounded Muscle Shoals. The consummate alchemist, Hall channeled that energy into No. 1 records, starting with Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On” and Jimmy Hughes’ “Steal Away.” These songs claimed the quintessential Muscle Shoals sound, a sort of dirty amalgamation with its foundation in R&B. The two music studios in small town Alabama would go on to have breakthrough recording sessions with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Mac Davis, The Rolling Stones, Traffic and Bob Dylan, just to name a few, and this documentary is full to bursting with delicious footage of them all.
Maybe one of the most compelling elements in Muscle Shoals, was each participant’s need to grasp, to define and explain the Power they experienced in this glorious pocket of inspiration. Some said it was the proximity to the Tennessee River, a body of water with a long history of music magic. Some said it was the unlikely and profound exaltation of black music in the center of the Deep South. Some said it was Rick Hall’s ability to erase skin color from the equation altogether, creating an environment where black and white musicians united seamlessly.
I submit that you can’t pin down the spiritual force that exists in Muscle Shoals. It’s too big, too elusive. It can only be accessed by trust and guts and talent and risk. I’m grateful it does exist and that there are artists in this world who are willing to mine that gold, who will make movies and music and who will let themselves be channels so that the rest of us might be enlightened.