In 20 to 30 years when all the stories of blues, early rock and early R&B and soul have been told, rock documentarians will be forced to look away from this golden age to the music scene of today. No doubt they’ll find less of the “magic” that was apparently everywhere in the good ‘ol days, but they might start looking for a new way to depict the recording process of today as special.
“Muscle Shoals” is a rock-doc about a small Alabama river town and the legendary music that inexplicably was recorded there. Everyone from Mick Jagger to Aretha Franklin to Bono speaks of the “Muscle Shoals Sound” and the special “something” that they discovered and achieved there. But following along those ambiguous terms, “Muscle Shoals” becomes a formless history lesson and appreciation rather than a documentary worth remembering. It’s a dry and familiar doc in the worst ways and needs a new outlook for how to frame this unique cultural moment.
Here in this beautiful, pastoral, Southern slice of Americana, everything is described in spiritual, figurative terms. No one is quite sure what makes this place alluring, but they all say it has “something”. Some even believe the Native Americans’ old story that it’s the only place in the country where the river actually sings (the other is supposedly in Liverpool and spoke to The Beatles).
Frankly, the platitudes get tired quickly, and Director Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier finds little drama with which to set inside Muscle Shoals and its musical history. It seems as though the real magic behind Muscle Shoals was not the river, the food or the scenery but the small town record producer Rick Hall and his house band The Swampers.
The Swampers were white, born-and-raised Southern boys who “look like they worked at the supermarket around the corner,” but happened to make some of the funkiest and smoothest R&B sounds this side of the Mississippi. Playing together, they had a rich history of being the backing band for some of the most important musicians of all time. They broke ground by doing improvisational sessions compared to most session musicians who just read sheet music and could do little else.
But this detail among others seems lost in Camalier’s infatuation with name-dropping and mining the history of these otherwise ordinary guys. He pulls up what look like yearbook photos and has them talk about every Alabama boy who came through those studio doors as though we know them.
The simple cavalcade of iconic names and sounds just isn’t doing it anymore. This film’s Sundance contemporary “20 Feet From Stardom” pulls the same trick, but it delves into the industry dealings and nuance of what it means to be a backup singer while adding a comeback, underdog storyline underneath it all. Then there’s “Sound City,” which even profiles a studio in the way “Muscle Shoals” does, but Dave Grohl makes the film contemporary by giving a behind the scenes look at new music created in the act.
“Muscle Shoals” is just drowning in its own nostalgia with little other style or substance to keep it afloat. It’s not about anything other than an intangible idea of the spirit of music, and Camalier’s best way of depicting that is merely to copy Ken Burns style pans and pretty looking talking heads shots, both of which have become their own cliches.
One of the best recent rock docs is “Mistaken For Strangers,” the documentary following the indie band The National on one of their tours. It is shockingly light on the full history of the band, instead focusing its eye on its own director, singer Matt Berninger’s brother Tom. Tom makes himself into a character and even a tragic figure, and the movie has a peculiar narrative arc that ends up being even more revealing about the band than what a normal documentary could ever reveal.
“Muscle Shoals” feels like its uninterested in capturing that sort of innovation and new energy about what a rock-doc can look, feel and sound like. It’s all about trying to revisit that magical time and place that may have been special, but today feels lost.
2 ½ stars