Aretha Franklin

That thumping sound you hear is the sound of your own toe tapping.

It can be deceivingly difficult to create a great “rock-doc”. Too often, these snapshots of rock & roll history are love letters for fans. Discussion is limited to facts that are already known (or details few care about), and the film’s entire visual craft is mailed in. Often by the time the credits roll, it’s difficult to tell the difference between your average music documentary and an episode of VH1 Behind The Music.

Once in a while though, something special comes along…and MUSCLE SHOALS is something very special.

The film is the story of the small town of Muscle Shoals, Alabama (population: 8000). At first blush, the town seems like any other middle America setting – the sort of place that once felt Norman Rockwell-esque, but is now just trying to pay the bills. But look closer – or more precisely, listen closer – and this town reveals a secret. It just so happens that this spot on the shores of the Tennessee River is the site of some of greatest music ever recorded. Must be something in the water.

Now this isn’t the first documentary to come along and tell campfire stories about rock history. So what makes this one so special? There’s its look for starters, often an afterthought when it comes to films about sound. Director Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier shows great patience and lyricism in depicting the places and faces at the heart of this film. As we watch the way Camaleir’s camera catches the wind blower through a sunflower patch…or the river waters cascading over stones…we almost expect this music documentary to segue into a Terrence Malick film. There are stories about the magical sound coming from the soil and water of the town itself. When it’s presented to us so lavishly, it’s easy to agree.

As stunning as it looks, it’s the music that brings us – and the music that keeps us.

The soundtrack of MUSCLE SHOALS chimes out like the greatest mixed tape you could ever dream up (or playlist if you’re under 30). They’re all there: The Rolling Stones, Wilson Pickett, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Aretha Franklin, The Allman Brothers, Percy Sledge, Paul Simon, and Etta James to name but a few. Listening to how this place in the middle of Nowheresville, USA gave birth to such musical joy would almost be impossible to believe on its own. What makes it more unbelievable is when the story turns its attention to The Muscle Shoals session musicians, “The Swampers”.

The film finds a great deal of cheek when it introduces us to the talent who played on songs like “When a Man Loves a Woman”, “Mustang Sally” and “I’ll Take You There”. As if it’s not surprising enough to discover that soulful sound came from a room full of white boys, it gets even more surprising to meet them. They look, as Bono puts it in his interview, like they should have been working in the supermarket…not laying down killer tracks. Not only did these mild-mannered musicians do great things to bring some amazing music to life, but they did so during a time of great racial tension in America.

While their own governor was standing on the steps of his state’s schools to oppose integration, they were happily playing side by side with Aretha Franklin as she unleashed “I Never Loved A Man the Way That I Loved You”.

What makes the whole film that much more engaging and personal, is the way it keeps coming back to the life of producer, Rick Hall. Rick’s life is the sort of thing you hear about in country songs: his wife died, his mom left, his brother died, and for a while he became a drifter. MUSCLE SHOALS follows him around town, capturing him in a way that makes him seem every bit as poetic, weather-worn, and resilient as his legend seems. The same way the personality of The Swampers draws us into this chapter of musical history, so too does the resiliency of Rick Hall.

MUSCLE SHOALS features legend after legend waxing poetic about “The Muscle Shoal Sound”. They throw words around like “spirit”, “vibe”, and “funk”, but can’t ever seem to point to what it is about this one corner of America that made it lay claim to some of the greatest songs ever recorded. In the end, the fact that we can’t point to something specific makes things all the better. It’s like trying to explain love to someone who’s never been in it.

MUSCLE SHOALS has finished its Hot Docs engagement. For more info, including future engagements, check out the film’s website.