As we gaze upon lovingly shot close-ups of the Tennessee River, we hear a familiar voice intoning empty platitudes. "'Magic," the voice says, "is the word that comes to mind when I think of Muscle Shoals. It's about alchemy, it's about turning metal... into gold." Is that an Irish accent we're detecting? Oh, Jesus Chri—is that Bono?
Sure enough, we cut to a stumpy Irishman wearing a pair of bling-bling eyeglasses. Instead of any of the dozens of incredible musicians who recorded there, the filmmakers chose Bono—who had nothing to do with the legendary music that was cut at FAME Studios or the neighboring, competing Muscle Shoals Sound Studio—to introduce their movie about the small Alabama town that originated some truly magnificent music in the 1960s and 1970s. Bono was likely still a pants-wetting urchin on the streets of Dublin when Percy Sledge recorded the immortal "When a Man Loves a Woman," or when Wilson Pickett laid the raw, funky "Mustang Sally" to tape.
Bono isn't in much of Muscle Shoals, but that he's in it at all is a symptom of the movie's wrong-headedness. Perhaps the film's intentions are solid—to be a definitive documentary on the place where Aretha Franklin found her voice and where a bunch of white boys found themselves backing Clarence Carter, Etta James, Arthur Conley, and countless soul and R&B greats. But the filmmakers can't find a straightforward narrative, instead digressing into artsy-fartsy camera tricks and weirdly depressing anecdotes from FAME Studios founder Rick Hall. Worse, the film keeps getting distracted by rock star glitz—intently focusing on the two days the Rolling Stones spent in Muscle Shoals, and the unreleased album Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded there before they got their big break.
This isn't a documentary as much as a Rolling Stone advertorial. Hopefully, more capable filmmakers will one day tackle Muscle Shoals' remarkable story. Until then, best let the music speak for itself.
dir. Greg "Freddy" Camalier