There would never be rock ‘n’ roll without the South, and all the blues, New Orleans jazz, and country to come out of that region of the country. Thus, Muscle Shoals, the small Alabama town that holds the legendary Fame Recording Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, makes surprisingly perfect sense as a setting for so much classic musical output.
The clear comparison would be Dave Grohl’s Sound City, which follows the legendary L.A. studio Sound City Studios. While Muscle Shoals boasts just as many high profile contributors, from Bono to Jimmy Cliff to Aretha Franklin, the documentary lacks the pretension and smugness that Dave Grohl occupies in Sound City. Where Dave Grohl goes out of his way to make himself the film’s central character in Sound City, the setting and history of Muscle Shoals is the main focus in Muscle Shoals as it should be. So the film is more grounded and focused on the story and music than getting detracted by anything else.
The film also gives a humbled look at the unlikely owner of Fame Studios, Rick Hall. It covers the tragic background that led to him wanting to start the studio, and how he created the signature Muscle Shoals sound, from the original house band to the legendary Swampers (which includes David Hood, father of Drive-By-Trucker frontman Patterson Hood). It also covers life in the segregated South, and how amidst the tyranny of George Wallace in Alabama, Fame remained a mixed studio which never had any notable race issues. It’s refreshing how well it captures the ethos of the region and the studio, and much of this has to do with getting Rick Hall and the region’s history right.
These rock docs are always good for some rare vintage footage, and we get that in spades with photos and video of early days in the studio with the late Duane Allman, a young Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Rolling Stones, and many more. It also covers the creation of plenty of classic songs, from Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman”, Wilson Pickett’s legendary version of “Hey Jude” with Duane Allman, and of course, Lyrnyrd Skyrnyrd’s “Free Bird”.
If you love southern rock, soul, or just the history of rock ‘n’ roll, Muscle Shoals is a must watch. It is available on Netflix now.