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Originally published Thursday, October 17, 2013 at 3:14 PM

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The musical magic of ‘Muscle Shoals’

The story of the mystical small-town music mecca, “Muscle Shoals” is one of the best rock documentaries ever made.


Seattle Times music critic

Movie Review 4 stars

‘Muscle Shoals,’ a documentary directed by Greg “Freddy” Camalier. 111 minutes. Rated PG for thematic elements, language, smoking and brief partial nudity. Harvard Exit.

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What do you want from a rock doc? Great music? Interviews with the stars? Critical perspective? A compelling story line? Alluring visual textures? Stuff you didn’t already know?

Few music documentaries have even two of these ingredients, but “Muscle Shoals,” the story of a soulful redoubt in Alabama — where everyone from Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, to Stevie Winwood and the Rolling Stones recorded during the ’60s and ’70s — has them all. It is hands down one of the best music documentaries ever made.

Weaving the personal narrative of FAME studio founder Rick Hall, a grimly determined man who grew up dirt poor in the nearby woods, with the stories of the house band of white guys, the Swampers, who were so funky everyone thought they were black, and the name artists who flocked there to record, “Muscle Shoals” paints a picture of a magical place, dappling its urban music with pastoral shots of cotton fields, sunflowers, rushing creeks and kudzu.

Though the film gets a little “woo woo” about the Muscle Shoals “magic” as you listen to Franklin, Winwood, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Bono, Gregg Allman, Percy Sledge, Etta James, Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler — and that’s just a partial list — tell their yarns, you begin to think it just might be true that the Muscle Shoals sound was influenced by Alabama mud or a pre-Columbian siren in the Tennessee River.

Never mind hearing Aretha singing “I Never Loved A Man” and “Chain of Fools,” watching the Stones listening to a playback of “Wild Horses” and Lynyrd Skynyrd performing “Sweet Home Alabama.”

Even better, there is treachery. After a dust-up with Aretha’s husband, Hall is deserted — first by Wexler, then by the Swampers, who start a competing business, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio — and a town with about 20,000 people suddenly has two of the most important recording dens in the U.S. The way it all works out in the end is worth the price of admission.

Paul de Barros (206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com) covers music at blogs.seattletimes.com/soundposts/ or follow him on Twitter @pdebarros



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