Those who are regular readers of this section know that I’m a table-pounder, albeit a selective one. As the Movies Editor for Paste, one of the most rewarding things about my job is finding movies that deserve a wider audience, and exhorting our readers, early and often, to go see them. “We get it,” I’ve had friends email me, “we should see this movie. I promise we will. You can stop hounding us now.” In the past, I’ve pounded on behalf of documentaries as diverse as The Imposter, The Interrupters, and General Orders No. 9; and of narrative films as diverse as Bellflower, Liberal Arts, and That Evening Sun. These films have become symbols, of a sort, of the kind of films Paste exists to bring you, and many of you even associate those films with the magazine.
Well, the time has come to pound the table again. You’ll read these words many times again before January, but pay close attention now – Greg “Freddy” Camalier’s Muscle Shoals isn’t just the best music documentary since Ondi Timoner’s 2004 masterpiece Dig!. It’s the best documentary of the year, whether you’re a music lover or not. And it’s not particularly close.
The documentary is about the beginnings and heyday of the recording scene in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a tiny town that improbably changed the face of rock and roll, putting out along the way some of the greatest records in the history of American music. Many of those moments are recounted to great effect in the film; first-timer Camalier is obviously a natural storyteller. But there’s so much more to the doc – the cinematography is lush and beautiful, the editing is crisp and precise, and it’s in turns heartbreaking, inspiring, wry, thought-provoking, nostalgic, and genuinely funny. It’s simply a stunning debut film.
It helps that Camalier and his producing partner Stephen Badger are after more here than just a dry lesson in musical history. They delve into the civil rights movement and its effect specifically on Alabama, especially as it relates to a Muscle Shoals music scene that was, shockingly enough, lacking in any racial tension. They return again and again to the ancient Native American legend about the river that flows through the town, and the water spirit who lived there, sang songs, and protected the town. And the personal life of Fame Records founder Rick Hall, the protagonist of the film, is itself worthy of a Faulkner novel.
Plenty of big names keep popping up in the film to talk about how special the town of Muscle Shoals is, and how unique is the music it produces. As the opening sequence, a montage of the natural beauty around the area, begins to roll, you hear a tenor voice with a deep Irish brogue setting the scene in the most adulatory of tones. “You’re gonna hear some of the greatest voices that ever were,” he tells us. That voice sounds so familiar surely it’s not Bono? But it is Bono. Soon enough, we see Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (Keith actually says he wishes the Rolling Stones had made all their records there). Aretha Franklin drops by, too. And Gregg Allman, and Steve Winwood, and Alicia Keys, and Clarence Carter, and Etta James, and Percy Sledge, and Wilson Pickett, and a seemingly endless roster of all-time musical greats.
And oh, the music. Even if Camalier and crew hadn’t done such a masterful job telling the stories, it would be worth the time just to sit and listen to the music. We’re there when the small-town Southern white guys who would later become known as The Swampers change the sound of rock and roll. We’re there when Aretha Franklin becomes Aretha. We’re there when Duane Allman and Clarence Carter create Southern rock. We’re there when Etta James resurrects her career. The list of top musical moments could fill this entire review, but it’s best left to the viewers to discover on their own.
Over the years, we hope that Paste has developed a credibility with you, a sort of critical capital. We take that seriously, and spend that capital very judiciously. But I can tell you that if you’re the type of person who likes Paste Magazine, I am have no doubt that you’re going to love Muscle Shoals. Trust me on this one. See it, preferably in a theater full of others to share the experience with. You won’t regret it. I’m pounding the table again.