What Makes a Music Documentary Magic? ‘Muscle Shoals’ vs. ‘Sound City’

By  · Published on October 3rd, 2013

The recording studio can be a magical place where the songs you now know and love are first born, and there are many factors go into making that magic a reality – a talented artist, just the right hook, a producer with a keen ear, a dedicated engineer, the perfect microphone placement. But there is one other factor that certain studios are also able to deliver: an iconic sound. Earlier this year Sundance premiered two different documentaries that gave audiences an inside look at two famous recording studios – one located in rural Alabama and the other on the outskirts of the entertainment capital that is Los Angeles (i.e. “The Valley”). Nearly a country apart in more ways than one.

Muscle Shoals focused on the Alabama town that housed FAME Studios which produced some of the biggest hits of the 1960s and 1970s such as “I’ll Take You There,” “When a Man Loves a Woman,” “Mustang Sally,” and “Freebird.” Where Muscle Shoals explored the location’s unique sound, Sound City focused on a more tangible object – the studio’s Neve board which helped produce hit albums for artists such as Fleetwood Mac, Rick Springfield, Tom Petty, and Slipknot. Not to mention Sound City’s musician-turned-director, Dave Grohl, who recorded there with his former band (one you may have heard of), Nirvana.

With the release of Muscle Shoals last week, I wanted to revisit these two films as one documentary brought the music to life while the other seemed to circle around the same idea for the majority of its run-time. Telling the real-life story can be a tricky undertaking – filmmakers need to deliver information while still engaging and entertaining. Normally, music documentaries have a leg up on this challenge since they are filled with great songs that keep them from feeling like you just took a trip back to your former school days.

The is no question both FAME Studios and Sound City produced ground breaking music, but the way these stories were documented caused Muscle Shoals to end up leaving me cold while Sound City left me invigorated.

On description alone, Muscle Shoals should have been slightly more interesting because it attempted to explain the intangible reason this studio created such amazing music while Sound City had a much more specific and material reason to point to regarding the studio’s success and the memorable music it created. Both documentaries are interesting peeks behind the curtain that is the business of recording music, but the idea of capturing and understanding something intangible would seem to give Muscle Shoals the advantage of intrigue.

Unfortunately Greg “Freddy” Camalier’s documentary, which starts off strong, begins to jump between the film’s various interview subjects too much, almost at random, and revisits conversations first posed at the beginning of the film without truly wrapping them into the film’s conclusion. The artists and studio musicians interviewed (from Aretha Franklin to Bono) are unquestionably fascinating, but would have been better served if these interviews seemed to link the various stories together rather than presenting them in a way that came across like jumbled thoughts.

As I noted in my review of the film, it was clear Camalier was creating a film about a subject and phenomenon he was interested in, but Muscle Shoals lacked the passion that normally comes with music, and in a music doc, needs to shine through.

And that is where Sound City delivered.

Grohl had a personal interest in the subject matter of Sound City, having recorded at the studio and fallen in love with the sound of the Neve console, but he used that as a gateway to bring the audience in. Grohl introduced the studio through his eyes, but quickly turned things over to those who worked in the studio and intercut their passion for the studio with the iconic music recorded there, creating a connection even the most casual music fan should feel. Sound City certainly benefits from the fact that the studio has just closed its doors and emotions were running high, but that is exactly what is needed in a music documentary – a way to bring people in to the passion and make them a part of it.

Music is all about emotion and connection and a good music doc should be able to deliver that feeling, not just talk about it. The difference may come down to the fact that Muscle Shoals was created by a fellow “outsider” hoping to understand more about that magical place whereas Sound City featured someone from the “inside” inviting viewers to experience what it was like to record at the studio. In my review of the film, I noted, “Grohl does not simply tell you why Sound City was important, he takes you through the studio’s journey.”

Reflecting back on both FAME Studios and Sound City, which attributed so much to music’s history, is important and compelling, but where Muscle Shoals seemed to fade out quietly, Sound City played itself out with a renewed fever. Artists still go down to Muscle Shoals to record and channel the “magic” of that place, but Grohl pointed audiences towards a potential new future that combined the nostalgia of the analogue Neve board sound of Sound City with the future of digital recording. Instead of pitting the two methods against each other, Grohl showed how the two methods can actually work together as he recorded alongside digital artists like Trent Reznor, hinting at a new era of music and a new sound documentarians may be reflecting on decades from now. Most importantly, he did so without offering answers, allowing audiences to think about both the past and the future, and what sound they may hope the future holds.

We will always have music, but the way it is being recorded and what ingredients provide the magic are definitely changing. But no matter what the future holds, or what sound defines it, hopefully the documentaries that capture it will remember to focus on the passion and make those who may not have been there to experience it feel like they have.

Sound City is available to rent or buy through Amazon, iTunes, and Netflix. Muscle Shoals is currently out in limited release.