Surrounded by a beautiful river, rolling hills and blowing grass, FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) Studio has been the birthplace of some of the greatest Rock n’ Roll and Soul music ever to grace our ears. Located in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, this small studio is responsible creating countless hits and for creating a group of musicians that saw past race and chose to work with anyone and everyone. There is a distinct sound known as the “Muscle Shoal Sound” that many of today’s greatest artists can recognize and someday hope to achieve.
Rick Hall grew up in poverty and lived in some of the worst conditions imaginable as he grew up in Franklin County, Alabama. Growing up, Hall always had the urge to play and write music and it was something that he always saw himself doing. When Hall was drafted during the Korean War, he joined the Honor Guard and played in a band. After returning home to Alabama and quickly losing his wife and father, Hall decided that the best way to provide for himself was to play music. So, he saxophonist Billy Sherrill began to write and play together in a band. When record studio owner Tom Stafford offered the men a chance to create a new studio in Florence, Alabama, FAME was born and soon that “Muscle Shoal Sound” would be born too.
Overtime, FAME studios would become the home of the Muscle Shoal Rhythm Section, otherwise known as The Swampers. This group of musicians loved what they did and would play with whomever, as they believed that talent was not limited to one race or another. Many artists and bands would travel thousands of miles to record at FAME Studios and many artists and bands produced their best hits there. There was and still is a magic about this studio and about Muscle Shoals that you just can’t put into words. The story behind its origins is one that will provide entertainment through knowledge to those who didn’t how important this little studio was to the music that matters still today.
What really grabbed my attention about this documentary, was it’s use of imagery and video clips. Often, there are scenes being described by the interviewees as a sweeping shot of scenery takes over. We see these rolling hills, the green grass and the flowing river that define this area and the cinematography is beautiful. It seems as if you’re watching the nature channel, as they describe a once forgotten landscape. Couple those nature shots with archive footage of recording sessions and you’ve got a great contrast of new and old that gives you another sense to how amazing this place really is. The small town is put on full display and it’s hard to imagine that great Rock n’ Roll and Soul music came from such a quaint little town.
For most of the film, the story of this almost sacred place is told by such artists as: Keith Richards, Bono, Aretha Franklin, Alicia Keys, Mick Jagger, Greg Allman, Jimmy Cliff, Etta James, Percy Sledge & Clarence Carter. Every artist has their own perspective of the importance of Muscle Shoals and FAME Studios. Many of them, like Franklin, had their biggest hits recorded there and quite possibly owe their career to that one recording. To accompany these artists, the film also plays a lot of their songs and the songs of other artists who had also recorded there. The audio is amazing and the soundtrack will have you smiling the whole way through!
For me, the film does stretch a bit too long, as it’s just barely under two hours. The interviews keep coming and the pace never really quickens. Were it an hour-and-a-half or even an hour, I think that Muscle Shoals could have told the same story and gotten the message across much faster. Instead, the film feels bloated with too many interview clips and Native American legends that will almost detract you from the film. Luckily, I like music enough to bear through it and I really did enjoy what the musicians had to say.
I think that, without a doubt, Muscle Shoals is one of the best music documentaries that I’ve ever seen. It provides a rich history on a little know studio that helped create influential music that is still well-regarded today. The interviews are done well and the interviewees have a lot of great and surprising things to say. Be it talking about their experiences in the studio (accompanied by clips) or talking about the impact the studio has had on the business, these artists have a great respect for where this wonderful music came from. I certainly learned a lot and I’m glad for it, because a story like this shouldn’t go unheard. Whether or not you love Rock n’ Roll or Soul, I think everyone can respect and enjoy this tale of upbringing and history. Muscle Shoals is a film you won’t want to miss!
Muscle Shoals Trailer