In 'Muscle Shoals,' the music is color-blind
Clarence Carter, the soul singer best known for "Patches" and one of the hit makers heard in Greg "Freddy" Camalier's music documentary Muscle Shoals (Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Jimmy Cliff, and the Rolling Stones are among the many others) is blind. He's also black.
And Rick Hall and the musicians he employed at his FAME studio in the little northeast Alabama town where an astounding amount of the greatest soul music ever was produced are white.
But to hear Carter tell it, when it came to skin color and race relations inside FAME (it stands for Florence Alabama Music Enterprises), everyone was as blind as he.
Growing up in the Deep South, Carter explains, he was expected to call all white males "mister," even children. "All that went away" in the studio, he says, where racial tensions were put aside in the still very much segregated 1960s and '70s to make music that most outsiders assumed was made by black musicians.
That's a theme struck throughout Muscle Shoals by artists like Franklin, who cut her breakthrough "I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)" at the converted tobacco and candy warehouse. Paul Simon wanted to record there with "the black dudes" who played on the Staple Singers' "I'll Take You There." When the Alabama-born singer known as "the Wicked Pickett" arrived in 1966, he was surprised that Hall was "a tall white man - we called them peckerheads."
Muscles Shoals follows the path of Hall, who grew up poor and whose life story, told to a certain degree in "Patches," plays out like a tragic country song. He had his first hit with Jimmy Hughes' "Steal Away" in 1964, and they kept coming as FAME gathered steam with Arthur Alexander's "Anna" and "You Better Move On," and Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman."
The movie also charts the entwined and divergent paths of the studio musicians - keyboard player Barry Beckett, bassist David Hood, guitarist Jimmy Johnson, and drummer Roger Hawkins - who, after starting out with Hall, founded their own competing and equally successful Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. That's where the Stones recorded four songs for Sticky Fingers, including "Brown Sugar" and "Wild Horses," where Lynyrd Skynyrd first cut "Freebird," and where Bob Seger, Linda Ronstadt, Bob Dylan, and scores of others would come in search of "the Muscle Shoals sound."
Muscle Shoals isn't perfect. Neither Bono nor Alicia Keyes has any business being in the movie, though Bono does wax poetic about the genius of the music recorded there, and Keyes teams with the Swampers for a strong performance of Dylan's "Pressing On."
There's a lot of mystical talk about soulful sounds bubbling from the mud of the Tennessee River. And there's at least one serious omission in that no attention is paid to late guitarist Eddie Hinton, who played along with the Swampers in the late '60s and distinguished himself as a solo artist.
Like 20 Feet From Stardom, another standout music doc of 2013, Muscle Shoals skillfully shines a light on unheralded musicians whose names usually are not illuminated. The song the two movies have in common is Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama."
Whatever you think of the Southern-pride politics of the answer song to Neil Young's accusations of racism, it sounds great coming out of a set of multiplex speakers. And it rightly lionizes the musicians celebrated in the film: "Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers, and they've been known to pick a song or two (yes they do) / Lord, they get me off so much, they pick me up when I'm feelin' blue (now how about you?)."
Yes, us too.
Muscle Shoals ***1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Greg "Freddy" Camalier. With Rick Hall, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Aretha Franklin, Barry Beckett, David Hood, Roger Hawkins, Jimmy Johnson, Wilson Pickett.
Running time: 1 hour, 51 mins.
Parent's advisory: PG (thematic elements, smoking)
Showing at: Ritz Bourse