THE PLACE THAT LYNYRD SKYNYRD ONCE SANG ABOUT
by Todd Hartley
It’s not often that I get to see movies before they go into wide distribution, but such was the case Wednesday night when I attended an Aspen Film Fest showing of “Muscle Shoals,” a documentary that opens for limited release in U.S. theaters today.
Having been given this rare opportunity, I’ve decided to indulge my inner movie critic and write a review of “Muscle Shoals,” but I have a few disclaimers I’d like to get out of the way before I start.
First of all, I’m no Roger Ebert. Though my girth may be reminiscent of his, that’s pretty much where the similarities end. To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never seen a movie by Truffaut, Godard, Antonioni, Bergman or Kurosawa, so I can’t use those directorial giants as a basis for comparison the way most highfalutin’ critics do. Oh, and unlike Ebert, I’m still alive (knock on wood).
More importantly, I have no idea what I’m talking about when it comes to movies. To give you a sense of my cinematic tastes, my favorite films are probably “The Warriors” and “Animal House.” I’d love to say I enjoy foreign films, too, but I can’t remember the last time I made it through a subtitled movie without falling asleep.
Anyway, on to the review.
If the name Muscle Shoals means anything to you, it’s probably because you remember it from the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Sweet Home Alabama.” The lyric, as you may recall, goes like this: “Now, Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers, and they’ve been known to pick a song or two.”
Despite the fact that “Sweet Home Alabama” has been one of my favorite songs for more than 30 years, until earlier this week I had absolutely no idea what Muscle Shoals or the Swampers were. And to be honest, I never really cared that much because whatever they were, they were in Alabama, a state that I couldn’t ever see myself visiting.
It turns out Muscle Shoals is a town on the Tennessee River in northwest Alabama. What sets Muscle Shoals apart from other towns in the South is that back in the late 1950s, a man named Rick Hall started a recording studio there called Fame Studios. Over the next couple of decades, Hall worked with some of the biggest names in the music business, including Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Otis Redding, Tom Jones and Donny Osmond.
The Swampers, also known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, were initially Fame Studios’ house band, and they played on countless hit songs by the aforementioned artists. Amazingly enough, considering how soulful and funky their sound was, the Swampers were a bunch of white guys, and the casual and friendly interaction between them and black musicians at a time when Alabama was the racist capital of the U.S. makes for a compelling subplot to the movie.
The main plot, however, concerns Hall and the ups and downs he’s had to deal with over the years. I don’t want to reveal too much, but suffice it to say that if you were related to Hall back in the day, there was a pretty good chance something awful was going to happen to you. By association, awful things also happened to Hall, but he seems to have endured them pretty well.
The plot is definitely secondary to the message in “Muscle Shoals,” though, and the message that comes through loud and clear is that this small town in Alabama had nearly as great an impact on American popular music as New York, New Orleans, Memphis, Detroit or anywhere else. In fact, so distinctive and highly sought-after was the Muscle Shoals sound that such notable bands as the Rolling Stones and Traffic came all the way over from England to record with the Swampers.
The interviews (in particular, the one featuring Keith Richards) and archival footage are fascinating, and the cinematography is evocative of other movies with great cinematography (I told you I had no idea what I was talking about). But what really makes “Muscle Shoals” special is the music. I love discovering where music comes from, so for me, learning about this fascinating chapter in American musical history was like a dream come true.
The last thing I’ll say about this thoroughly enjoyable film is it did something I never would have thought possible: It made Alabama seem attractive. Call me crazy, but I think I might even want to go there someday.
Now, Todd Hartley has got the swamp gas, and he’s been known to toot a sound or two.