Hot Docs 2013: Muscle Shoals


Tucked into the North-West corner of the state and hugging the Tennessee River, Muscle Shoals, Alabama is a slow-paced town of about 13000 people (if you sift it out of its Quad Cities region). But aside from its intriguing name (taken from the shallow areas of the river where mussels could be found), what makes this Southern city so interesting and worthy of an entire documentary about it? Three reasons spring to mind…

The music…That swampy, bluesy, soulful music that pushes the rhythm section up front and then drags all of the vocalist’s deep seated, long buried emotions out into the open. Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Etta James, Otis Redding and The Staple Singers all cut seminal sides of music here and influenced countless others – many of whom later came to Muscle Shoals themselves (Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Bob Seger, etc.). Duane Allman just about forced himself into the recording studio as a session guitarist and convinced Pickett to cover The Beatles “Hey Jude” – the results (a revelation to me in this film) becoming a template for The Allman Brothers. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” (as tired as it has become from classic rock radio) has never sounded as fresh or alive than it did playing over the end credits of the film. It’s said that the black artists from this area of Alabama used styles from country music while white musicians incorporated blues & gospel elements. The results lead directly to the Muscle Shoals sound – reason enough to encourage a melting pot of cultures – which permeates every corner of the film. The soundtrack is stupendous and sounded staggeringly great in the confines of the Bloor Theatre.

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Racism: Alive and Well

The Order of Myths Movie Still

When I saw The Order of Myths earlier this year, I was surprised to find that such a public display of race division was still alive and accepted in the US. It’s not to say that I live in an ideal world where racism doesn’t exist but it’s usually a topic that hides behind closed doors, which people discuss in hushed whispers and (mostly) deny in public.

Margaret Brown’s documentary about Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama was an eye opener. A celebration that predates the much more popular one in New Orleans’, things in Mobile are done a little differently with not one but two Mardi Gras parades and celebrations: one for the whites and one for African Americans. Though the individuals live, work and play together when it comes to celebrating Fat Tuesday, celebrations are segregated. There are two parades, two dances and two sets of Kings and Queens of Mardi Gras.

Brown’s documentary is a fascinating watch and though she is given access to the various groups involved in with the floats and organizing of events on both sides, no one really has an answer to why the celebration is still separate. The common answer is always “tradition” or “that’s how it’s always been done” but it makes you wonder why few people ask “When is enough enough? When do you fore go tradition?” And though Brown attempts to get some answers, she leaves the film open ended and rarely does racism rear its head although it’s always in the back of the mind and in full display on screen.

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