For the first hour or so, Muscle Shoals seems to be the rare music-history doc willing to use its subject—a small Alabama town that has earned a reputation as a recording haven—as a springboard for something bigger than just a collection of archival clips and rock-star anecdotes. Unfortunately, the film eventually gives in to the clichés of the genre. And although the intriguingly named first-time director Greg “Freddy” Camalier makes the twice-told tales of the film’s second hour watchable, they end up paling in comparison to its essayistic first half.
Dominated by landscape shots, the movie’s opening stretch interweaves the early history of Rick Hall’s FAME studio—which produced “Respect,” “Chain Of Fools,” “When A Man Loves A Woman,” and Wilson Pickett’s version of “Land Of A Thousand Dances”—with discussions of nature, race relations, and the role of communities in producing art. Big-name talking heads, including Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bono, Jimmy Cliff, and Aretha Franklin, serve as cultural commentators rather than personal storytellers. It’s refreshing, for example, to see Jagger and Richards talk at length about the often-overlooked country-soul crooner Arthur Anderson, or to hear an uncharacteristically cogent Bono discuss the importance of rivers in shaping the sound and imagery of rock music. What emerges is a vision of popular music as the product of a complex combination of landscapes and cultures; much time is devoted to the natural echo of work songs and the innate musicality of bodies of water.
However, because Muscle Shoals is structured chronologically, it is eventually forced to shift its focus from community to rivalry. FAME’s prized session musicians split with Hall to found Muscle Shoals Sound in 1969, and the film’s second hour focuses on the way the competing studios diverged in the 1970s, with Hall moving from soul into mainstream pop—producing records for Paul Anka, Tom Jones, and The Osmonds—as his former employees focused on rock singer-songwriters. While the film ends up making a case for the importance of session musicians—especially drummer Roger Hawkins—in shaping popular music, it does so through means so conventional (archival footage, statements from famous people) that its second half feels like an extended, tacked-on epilogue to an hour-long essay film.