Med City Movie Guy: Musical tribute flexes its 'Muscle'

Muscle Shoals

Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers. And they've been known to pick a song or two. Yes, they do — or rather, they have — for everyone from soul icon Wilson Pickett to classic rockers like the Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart.

Director Greg "Freddy" Camalier's documentary, "Muscle Shoals," lionizes the sound that originated in Rick Hall's FAME studio and its breakaway sect, "The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio," in an unlikely northern Alabama town not particularly close to anything that became both an incubator and a mecca.

Its isolation was as responsible for the unique sound as it was for attracting big names who enjoyed the unpretentiousness and ability to wander the region with virtual anonymity.

That's good and well, but the challenge of a documentary is to connect (or reconnect) with the audience — which Camalier handily manages, though it would be impossible not to with revered music that scores the soundtrack of our lives. Hits like Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman," Bob Seger's "Mainstreet," Paul Simon's "Kodachrome," and Lynyrd Skynyrd's anthem "Free Bird" all originated there. (Fun fact: Skynyrd roadie Billy Powell kept his classical piano training secret, but was discovered improvising when studio musicians returned from lunch; the song's intro is his composition and performance.)

Hall forged the original studio out of personal tragedy, creating a colorblind sanctuary in both a time and place that was the vortex of racial hostility: Governor George Wallace's Alabama. While neither African-American nor long-haired hippie musicians could enjoy dinner without cold stares, in the studio they were all equals. Jimmy Cliff introduced the world to reggae on the very spot where Duane Allman would later invent Southern rock.


Others backed by the studios' musicians include Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt, Joe Cocker, Etta James, Little Richard and Clarence Carter, whose hit "Patches" describes Hall and his father's relationship.

Camalier effectively pulls all of this together to chronicle and pay homage to the sound that is the marrow of our collective anthology in an award-worthy documentary that is an engaging and well-paced tribute.

Includes interviews with Mick Jagger, Bono, Alicia Keys and Keith Richards, as well as must-see vintage video of the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin.

Turn it up.

5 Honks

Chris Miksanek is a Rochester freelance writer. Follow him on the Center Stage blog at

I tell my kids that when I was their age I had to walk clear across the room to change channels. I’m sure they’ll tell theirs of the dark ages when they had to walk out to the mailbox to pick up a DVD rental.


Moviegoers spent more than $4 billion last year for on-demand video. Whether the new medium competes with theaters or augments them remains to be seen, but what’s clear is that it offers smaller studios an outlet for films that might not otherwise catch the attention of theater-bookers. Many like that it delivers premium content without cable packages that bundle unwanted channels.

But there’s a trade-off. Films designed for the big screen lose a lot in the translation. And what of the other theater experiences? Is it the same without a teen texting next to you, an octogenarian behind you asking their companion to repeat every other line of dialog, or someone mistakenly opening the exit door midway through the film to let a beam of sunlight scorch your dilated pupils?

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