Sunday, November 17, 2013

Muscle Shoals

Why she's so dumb, it really is a shame
She thinks "Muscle Shoals" is a boxer's name
--Rudy Vallee, "Kitty from Kansas City"

I was just listening to this (highly dated) Rudy Vallee song (no, they're not all highly dated) when I came across this reference to Muscle Shoals, within days of seeing this documentary, Muscle Shoals, and, perhaps most interestingly, the two have nothing to do with each other.

OK, maybe that's the opposite of interesting. Muscle Shoals, a small town in Alabama, was a topic of interest in Vallee's day because of a dam and munitions plant, but this is a story about the music scene which started up in the '60s and had a specific funky sound that defined entire subgenres of music fortwo decades. (It's still going today but, shhhh, it's about as dated as Vallee.)

So, what we have here is another paean to the not-waning-fast-enough era of the Baby Boomers.

So, using the method I described in the Darby documentary, we have three parts: the topic, the skillful handling of the topic, and the stance taken about the topic.

Factually, the topic is a fine subject for a documentary. The main subject is, or rather should be, Rich Hall, the founder of the Muscle Shoals sound, who came from desperately poor and tragic circumstances to rise to meteoric heights. There's the story of his rise, and success with turning Aretha Franklin from a vanilla girl-group lead singer to the Queen of Soul, Wilson Pickett, and so on. Then his falling out with his core group of musicians, and his rise to even higher heights.

Lotta good stuff here, with Hall getting screwed by a variety of people, though, honestly, in most cases, you just have people acting in their own interests, and he was admittedly hard to work with. Undoubtedly it was his perfectionism, but hey, you wanna make quality art, even if it's just disposable pop art, you gotta suffer through hundreds of retakes.

It's also kind of nice that there don't seem to be a lot of hard feelings. It was a long time ago and most of the motivations that led to trouble were not malicious, so letting bygones be bygones is worth something.

There's a common theme of shock-and-awe when all these coastal musical types wanna come down to Muscle Shoals to get that authentic black sound, only to find that the musicians were a bunch of redneck crackers. But, yeah, the music industry, at least from all these documentaries, was pretty damned racist back in the '60s and '70s.

Anyway, good source material.

So, let's talk about the handling. It's...okay. It suffers from a two moderate problems: First, it's seriously padded out with pictures of the Muscle Shoals area. This is lovely country, undoubtedly. But its relevance to the story is easily communicated with a few shots, not shot after shot after shot.

Perhaps more serious, if more understandable, is the kind of nostalgic shopping list that clutters up these kinds of films. It's significant to the story that Aretha Franklin got her second wind here, and how they rebounded with Etta James after she left, and that the Rolling Stones were there, and there's a great section on Lynyrd Skynyrd and the umpteen minute (nine minutes and forty seconds?) original version of "Free Bird", and so on.

At points, though, we're getting into music trivia that's only really good for reliving the past and perhaps scholarly interest. At one point, Hall recounts the death of his dad, and how he turned that into a hit song which, from a topic standpoint made a lot of sense and was touching, but from a musical checklist standpoint had me wondering why I'd never heard this hit song (and why, frankly, it seemed so awful to me).

But, hey, I'm not a music critic. I'm not even a film critic. I just go to a lot of movies. And this was pretty good, just diluted. Not When Comedy Went To School diluted or anything crazy, but enough to rob the narrative of a lot of its power, at least for me.

At the same time, if you were really into that music and that time period, you might completely disagree.

The Boy, who is rather unaware of the time period and not particularly into music, tended to agree. And I kind of think he's the audience of the future.


  1. Probably safe to say that the third aspect, how the documentary regards the material is "worshipful".

  2. Duane Allman spent a lot of time there, earning the nickname "Skydog" from Wilson Pickett.

  3. That was mentioned, in fact. As was everything.


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