Million Dollar Arm
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A documentary focusing on Rick Hall, the founder of FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and the signature sound he developed in famous songs including The Rolling Stones’ "Brown Sugar" and Percy Sledge’s "When a Man Loves a Woman".
Nobody would accuse retrograde '90s Brummie Brit-poppers Ocean Colour Scene of being trailblazers, but when they named their 1996 album 'Moseley Shoals' in a respectful nod to the Alabama home of FAME - the studio profiled in this documentary - they proved to be surprisingly ahead of the curve. In its late '60s/early '70s heyday, FAME generated an exceptional musical output, and director Greg Chevalier’s film profiles the man behind the magic: enigmatic studio boss Rick Hall. Hall, we find, has experienced a lifetime’s worth of hardship (bereavement, financial issues) to accompany the success, and though he is ultimately a stoic and flinty character, the film is at its most moving when we see flashes of emotion showing on his face.
Hall’s story is afforded plenty of additional colour and character by a host of high-profile contributors, who offer their own reflections on the era. The spirited recollections of singer Wilson Pickett (‘In The Midnight Hour’) are particularly enjoyable, as he casts light on often fraught recording sessions. The Rolling Stones’ cackling Keith Richards, meanwhile, continues to meld lascivious with cadaverous in his own inimitable way. Less tolerable is the almost inevitable surfacing of walking self-awareness bypass Bono, who arrives to spout a host of toe-curling platitudes about race in America. Indeed, the film’s general attitude to race is a little curious. It seems in terrible pains to stress that the white musicians (The Swampers) who provided the heart and soul of the Muscle Shoals were not just good, but the best.
Chevalier ties proceedings together with a consistent aesthetic sensibility, and conjures an evocative atmosphere through the use of attractive outdoor photography and gently sweeping vistas of the rolling Deep South backwoods. However, this anecdote-heavy film seems overly constructed, and on more than one occasion I got the distinct impression we weren’t being told quite the full story.
Warm, enjoyable, smooth and lightweight, this celebratory documentary is a gentle tribute to a remarkable man and his work. It also, of course, has a great soundtrack, but you’ll be left wanting something a little deeper and more detailed.
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