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Film Review: Muscle Shoals

October 30, 2013 | 10:44am EDT

Two boxes are now checked off my bucket list: I watched an art house film in an indie theater and took myself on a gratuitous movie date. I’ll admit I only saw “Muscle Shoals” because I scored the ticket for free from the movie’s public relations department. Not to mention I was curious after hearing about the documentary through Spotify advertisements. Why not work on that list?

So I headed to West End Cinema. It’s hidden under an office building at 2301 M Street, several blocks from either the Dupont Circle or Foggy Bottom metro stops. Bright signs point to a cramped entrance dotted in indie movie posters and white-board movie timetables. Confession: it is underwhelming at first. But if you go at the right time, you can catch lectures and discussions after showings with directors and notable others. More information is available on their website.

I found the box office (see: old school concession stand register) and picked up my ticket. In the process, the staff proudly told me about the theater. For example, I don’t like popcorn, yet the cashier convinced me to try theirs. I may be gullible but it is decidedly perfect. Not to mention they sell beer and baklava.

I followed the snack-crunching of fellow moviegoers into Theater 2. It felt like walking into a friend’s living room, if your friends are all above 40 and discuss their favorite Sundance film festival winners over wine. The screens are small and the sound is disproportionate, but it’s a comfortable atmosphere. The seats aren’t staggered so I avoided sitting behind a Marge Simpson double. (Seriously Marge, West End Cinema party foul.) On a positive note, there were no screaming children or glowing cellphones.

Finally the film flickered on. Directed by Greg Camalier, its plot traces the “swampy” musical roots of Muscle Shoals from deep Alabama mud. It overemphasizes the small town’s magic – at some points I nearly gagged from melodramatic cheese – but listening to Aretha Franklin, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Gregg Allman, and a dozen others tell their stories, you think Muscle Shoals might be haunted by an unnamed beauty.

With all hackneyed repetition aside, this rock-doc does an amazing job of trying to pin down that mystery. It opens with Bono in his trademark Bulgari sunglasses praising the “singing” Tennessee river’s influence. According to the film, the location’s unexplained inspiration exists from pre-Columbian mythology of a river siren. It suddenly cuts to Wilson Pickett performing “Land of 1000 Dances”, and so begins the movement’s lineage.

The exploration itself is jarring. Abrupt shifts between dazzling country landscapes, personal tearjerkers, and sassy musical performances keep you awake for the nearly two hour film. Even if you don’t dig the funky Southern soul, you can’t help but bop your head to the iconic songs. Everyone in the theater did. With the exception of seeing clips of music gods at work, what struck me most was how the film framed links between individual history and its influence on music. From stories of poor backwoods FAME studio founder Rick Hall, to a self-proclaimed “house band of funky white guys” called The Swampers in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement, Muscle Shoals music became a communal outlet to rise above personal tragedy. The documentary is a testament to the music’s power to beget resilience and change, channeling negativity into something uniquely and universally tangible.

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