Film Review: Muscle Shoals—The Story of the Sound

Admit it. When you first heard of Muscle Shoals, you thought it was the long-awaited sequel to Schwarzenegger’s Pumping Iron. Sorry to disappoint, but it’s not. It’s a riveting documentary that chronicles how an unlikely place became an international hotbed of music’s most legendary artists. A place where spirited young talent became immortalized in vinyl. A place often heard, but seldom heard of—Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

From the outset of the film, it’s hard to shake the feeling of “I’m about to get schooled.” And as Wilson Picket’s Land of 1,000 Dances plays over a credits roll of musicians including everyone from The Rolling Stones to Aretha Franklin, Lynyrd Skynryrd to Simon & Garfunkel, it finally starts to sink in—“I’ve been listening to Muscle Shoals music my whole life and never known!” And from that moment on, you’re hooked. 

Through an elegant blend of storytelling—from Rick Hall, Muscle Shoals’ very first studio founder, to a drool worthy collection of artist interviews—the film unflinchingly reels back the curtain on the dazzling triumphs, crushing disappointments, and cutthroat controversies that helped define the sounds of a generation.

Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote Freebird during a smoke break at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.

Though the film is chalk full of the juicy bits we all look for in a good documentary—insider stories, mesmerizing archive audio and video, and intimate views into the lives of our favorite artists—this film offers more. What’s truly remarkable is seeing how Muscle Shoals—this seemingly forgotten part of “anywhere, USA”—so noticeably shaped the careers of the artists who recorded there.

Aretha Franklin never had a hit until recording at Muscle Shoals. Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote Freebird during a smoke break at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Rick Hall brought Percy Sledge in from the cotton field to sing When a Man Loves a Woman. The list goes on and on.

As the documentary comes to a close, the feeling of “I’m going to get schooled” dissolves into a well-earned sense of wonder, accompanied by a thought every good music film should elicit—what would music be without this place?

Now before we give out any more spoilers, go watch it for yourself.