Sundance 2013 spotlight review: ‘Muscle Shoals’ doc showcases American musical hotspot

Sundance 2013 spotlight: Muscle Shoals was a standout this year.

Come with me now music fans as we dip out feet in the deep waters of Muscle Shoals, which are steeped in the history of the blues, r&b, gospel and Southern rock.

Director Greg Camalier’s inspired documentary fills in the pieces of how everyone from Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and Etta James to the Rolling Stones, Traffic and Lynrd Sknyrd got their groove there.

At first glance, this sleepy farm town in northern Alabama seems the most unlikely of places to be a fountainhead of 20th century modern American music. But scrape beneath the swampy soil of this place where the mighty Tennessee River flows through on its way to the Gulf of Mexico, and its unique soul is revealed.

The Native Americans who lived here worshipped a goddess-protector who sang to them from the depths of the river. Later,  Muscle Shoals native son W. C. Handy, the acknowledged “Father of the Blues, would be inspired by the rhythms of the river as well the African-tinged songs of the black farm workers in the cotton fields and even the clickety-clack of the trains that rushed past the town on their way to the port city of Mobile.

Record producer Sam Phillips would find his fame in Memphis with Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, but he was born in Muscle Shoals, too. But, as we learn in the film, the man who put Muscle Shoals on the musical map and essentially, created the coveted Muscle Shoals sound was Mark Hall who grew up on a dirt-poor farm there in a family with a Southern gothic and at times, horrific past.

A musician and songwriter who admittedly who lived in his car for much of his early career, Hall managed to scrape up enough money by age 30 to fulfill his dream: the opening of a bona fide, if modest, recording studio in his home town.

Hall knew something that instilled confidence in this venture that might make others hesitate – or even laugh. He knew the musicians that he played with in and around Muscle Shoals were as good as any he heard on the radio.

In fact, they were better.

In the first-ever studio recording of an unknown singer-songwriter named Percy Sledge, born just outside of Muscle Shoals, Hall’s Fame Recording Studio hit gold with the artist’s “When A Man Loves A Woman.”

At the same time was born the Muscle Shoals signature sound that combines a loud bass and loud percussion with a brass section and all interlaced with a mélange of blues-country rhythms.

The young studio musicians who produced the sound under Hall’s tight direction, later known as the Swampers, would become the Fame studio in-house band. But as this is a Southern story, there must be a civil war and in Muscle Shoals that happened when the Swampers eventually left to form their own recording studio with the backing Atlantic Records founder Jerry Wexler after Hall and Wexler had an alcohol-fueled falling out.

Like with that other war between brothers, after much blood, sweat and tears, the result was a stronger force to be reckoned with, and now two studios in Muscle Shoals churned out songs for an array of recording artists that would dominate the charts for two decades.

Filmmaker Camalier tells the story of Muscle Shoals through interviews with Bono, Aretha Franklin, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Steve Winwood and a score of other household name music artists, with in-depth conversations with Hall and the Swampers and of course, through the music itself. Kudos to Camalier for reaching high and achieving an extraordinary movie that is as informative as it is entertaining.