Muscle Shoals is a 2013 documentary about the sound studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a small town on the Tennessee River, often referred to as the “Soul River.” The studio became known for collaborating with various prominent musicians. The film explores the environment that gave rise to widely acknowledged American music, especially in the 1960s and the 1970s. In the recording studio, such artists as the Rolling Stones, Bono, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Alicia Keys, and many others (who star in the film) claimed to have found their special sound. It can be speculated that the protagonist of the film is the place itself. Many starring musicians address the question of how Muscle Shoals became the inspiration for such different musical styles.
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The picturesque images of the Tennessee River’s south, its swamps, its sun, and its forests as if become a separate character of the documentary. The film does not clearly explain why Muscle Shoals played such a prominent role in the history of American music, which leaves it, viewers, to make their own conclusions. The challenge of the musicians described in the movie was that they struggled to find their own styles and sound to compete with the mainstream music of the time.1 They repeatedly fail due to the remoteness of what they do from the general public’s expectations. However, they ultimately achieve wide recognition, historical significance, and credits for the creation of unique compositions that became the benchmark of American music.
The film features different music styles, including soul, rock, R&B, rock and roll, and country. All these styles had been widespread in the American South at that time. The soul is the genre that comes from the African-American gospel music, which was greatly influenced by such prominent genres in the 1950s as R&B and jazz. Its essential characteristics are rhythm (danceability), tense vocals, and the esthetics of testifying. Soul also inherited the culture of improvisation from jazz. Rock and roll is a popular music that features rhythm, dynamics, and backbeat. It evolved into rock, which is dynamic, too, but also heavily concentrates on the electric guitar sound.2 Rock is played in groups that also include bass guitar players and drummers. R&B, which stands for rhythm and blues, also originated in African-American communities. It evolved from jazz by becoming more rocking, rhythmic, and featuring heavier beats. The country is the music of the American South that is based on folk tunes and combines it with the blues influences that were widespread in the United States in the early 20th century.
The film also allows speculating about the matters of racial identities. The Swampers, Muscle Shoals-based prominent American musicians, played the music that was traditionally associated with African-American traditions. It was a surprise for many to discover that they were, in fact, white. Bono says in the film that they looked like guys who worked in a store around the corner. However, they produced high-quality R&B and soul music that demonstrated something that seemed to be a strong influence on African-American heritage and background. The film shows how in Alabama, which remained racially segregated, African Americans managed to occupy a very special position through their artistic achievements and recognition.3 Moreover, although there were the notions of “white music” and “black music,” the musical culture was not oppressive or segregated. This shows how individual and collective identities can be associated with music as a primary activity. The identity of a musician, perhaps a certain genre adorer, could be stronger than race.
Dobkin, Matt. I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You: Aretha Franklin, Respect, and the Making of a Soul Music Masterpiece. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2014.
Gillett, Charlie. The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock & Roll. London: Souvenir Press, 2011.
Reali, Christopher. Making Music in Muscle Shoals. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, 2014.
- Matt Dobkin, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You: Aretha Franklin, Respect, and the Making of a Soul Music Masterpiece (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2014), 187.
- Charlie Gillett, The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock & Roll (London: Souvenir Press, 2011), xii.
- Christopher Reali, Making Music in Muscle Shoals (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, 2014), 10.