Movie review: ‘Muscle Shoals’

McClatchy-Tribune News ServiceOctober 25, 2013 

The swampers of Muscle Shoals, Ala., musicians who backed up bands and other

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  • REVIEW ‘Muscle Shoals’

    * * * 1/2

    Starring: Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Bono, Percy Sledge, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Steve Winwood

    Rated: PG for thematic elements, language, smoking and brief partial nudity

    Running time: 1:52

“Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers,” Ronnie Van Zant sang on the Southern rock anthem “Sweet Home Alabama.” “And they’ve been known to pick a song or two.”

For many, it was the first time they’d heard of Muscle Shoals, Ala., or the studio band that made first Fame Studios, and then the competing Muscle Shoal Sound Studios, legendary locales in American music.

This dinky little berg on the Tennessee River was the home to musicians, producers and studios that launched everyone from Aretha Franklin to the Allman Brothers, Percy Sledge to Jimmy Cliff. Everybody who was anybody in music from the 1960s through the ’80s did transformative work there.

Director Greg “Freddy” Camalier cleverly saves the “Sweet Home Alabama” anecdote for the closing credits of “Muscle Shoals,” his elegiac, picturesque documentary about a place that rivals any in North America in its importance to popular music.

“Muscle Shoals” tells the hard-luck life story of Rick Hall, a poor sawmiller’s son who discovered Percy Sledge and changed the world when he recorded “When a Man Loves a Woman.” The film sketches in how Hall founded Fame Studios amid the kudzu and cotton fields, and focuses on the local white boys he turned into a backing band, the fabled “Swampers.”

No music documentary is complete without rock’s poet-historian Bono showing up to connect music to river towns and declare that in this sound, “we felt the blood in it. It’s like the songs came out of the mud.”

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