You would not have thought it, but we’re all a little indebted to a small town in rural Alabama. Muscle Shoals is located on the banks of the Tennessee and, as this documentary from debut director Greg Camalier explains, it’s the unlikely breeding ground of creativity that has shaped popular music. Without it, the soundtrack of our lives would be nowhere near as good.
MUSCLE SHOALS tells the story of pioneering record producer Rick Hall. He founded Fame Studios in the late 1950s and, against the backdrop of racial segregation, gathered a group of talented white session musicians and produced a stream of unforgettable hits rooted in the historically black music of rhythm and blues. From his recording studio in the swamplands of the Deep South, he put together some of the greatest records in American music history.
After Fame produced ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’, sung by local worker Percy Sledge, and catapulted the careers of Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin, musicians flocked to the studio to get the ‘Muscle Shoals sound’. Everybody from The Rolling Stones to Jimmy Cliff made the pilgrimage to Alabama in search for this elusive musical formula. The list is astounding, and by the time Etta James is crying out ‘Tell Mama’ on the soundtrack your jaw has hit the floor.
Camalier’s celebratory account of this fascinating chapter in music history has a wealth of interviews with some of the biggest names in the business paying homage to this enchanted place. At its heart is a portrait of the brooding Rick Hall, a man embittered by clashes with record labels and personal heartache, and also the session musicians known as The Swampers, modest figures who were the surprising driving force behind some of the most soulful tracks ever recorded.
Deeper resonance comes from a sense of mysticism surrounding Muscle Shoals itself, as if there’s something in the pastoral air that enriches the music – rising up from the river and the mud – something that has an alchemical effect on a bass drum and a funky rhythm guitar. It’s not a coincidence that Native Americans called the Tennessee ‘the river that sings.’
To go with the sublime soundtrack are interviews with Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Clarence Carter, Etta James, Greg Allman, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Jimmy Cliff and Alicia Keys among others. MUSCLE SHOALS is blissful viewing for all music fans.
You can watch MUSCLE SHOALS at Picturehouse Cinemas on Tuesday 10 December as part of the Discover Tuesdays programme.
When your child is diagnosed with autism, it can feel like your world has fallen apart. Last year, when our son Gabriel was three, it happened to us. And though life is extremely hard for us, and much more so for him, he has opened our eyes, minds and souls to magical things in everyday life – like cinema.
Our son is essentially non-verbal, having very few words, and like many with autism he has major difficulties with language, communication and social interaction. We first took him to the cinema when he was two, and a passion was born. In the darkness of the theatre there’s no threat or pressure from neurotypical folk expecting conversation and eye contact. The two-dimensional characters provide a safe way of accessing life experiences: our son can’t seek answers and information as others would by asking questions and sharing fears. The darkness and ‘front focus’ help reduce the constant overwhelming visual input that is part of his life: how can you attend to the ‘thing’ in front of you when your eyes are flooded with hundreds of images every minute from every nook of peripheral vision?
In spring 2012, when he had a vocabulary of approximately 15 words, Gabriel clearly said ‘Sparky’. We were excited that he’d said a word and was undoubtedly trying to communicate with us, yet we had no idea what ‘sparky’ was. We searched our memories and came up blank. Then one day I recalled, ‘Last month we did see a trailer for a Tim Burton film – there was a dog in it called Sparky, but it’s only mentioned a couple of times, and it was so fast, and we’ve only seen it once…’
‘Nah,’ my husband said, ‘can’t be.’
How much we have learnt since.
That one trailer was to seize Gabriel’s imagination like no other. How did we discover that ‘Sparky’ was indeed the endearing dog of Burton’s creation? Gabriel showed us. We went to the cinema and Gabriel ran to a cardboard FRANKENWEENIE placard and spent 45 minutes dancing, babbling, singsonging and beaming in front of it. Over several months we hotly anticipated the release of the film. With every poster, every Disney Store window display, Gabriel turned to us with animation and joy. He began to request ‘Sparky?’ for the trailer and, always, he’d turn to us and exclaim and dance and beam.
One night, having difficulty getting Gabriel to sleep, I sat quietly with him. Thinking he’d finally drifted off, I tiptoed away, only to be stopped in my tracks by the little voice that floated out of the darkness – ‘Something big is gonna happen!’ The moment was eerie and magical; tears filled my eyes and swelled my throat.
Many phrases from FRANKENWEENIE were to follow, and this was before we’d even seen the film! Gabriel made – ‘Turtle, dinosaur’ – a request for us to sketch Shelly the turtle’s transformation into a T-rex like monster. He started to tell us ‘Mr Whiskers had a dream about you last night.’ He learnt new words: bat, monster, sea monkey! And, amazingly, he began to role-play. We’d been told that ‘autistics’ lack imaginary capacity, yet our son took what he saw in the FRANKENWEENIE trailers, and ultimately the film, and began to apply it to his toys: play-sniffing, tracking, chasing cats, even dispensing kisses.
But the biggest moment was yet to come. It wasn’t Gabriel seeing his Sparky birthday cake on his fourth birthday and being utterly transfixed – ‘Spaaaaarky!’ It wasn’t going to the cinema three times a week to see FRANKENWEENIE while it was out. It wasn’t him managing to go to nursery for two hours because he had a laminated picture of Sparky in his hand and another in his bag. It was the giant sign he gave us during our first viewing of the film.
We’d spent months digesting, assimilating and loving the FRANKENWEENIE trailers, posters and placards, so we approached the screening with the ecstasy of parents knowing they were giving their child The Greatest Gift Ever. It started brilliantly, Gabriel was spellbound, but then he started to scream and sob… Sparky had been hit by a car.
Tim Burton didn’t show us the car, he didn’t show us the corpse; we saw nothing but Victor’s reaction – a face of fear shouting ‘Sparky! Nooooo!’ And that was the moment that many clinicians and educators were proven wrong. We had been told ‘autistics can’t express empathy and have little or no sense of other,’ yet here, in his distress, Gabriel was clearly showing us otherwise. He has shown us the same countless times since, identifying with a film character to such an extent that even subtle bullying will reduce him to tears. The first screening of a film is always difficult (and this is where Autism-Friendly Screenings are vital), as Gabriel has yet to discover that the character emerges triumphant and safe.
FRANKENWEENIE sparked a magical trajectory for us, showing us the actual potential in our beautiful boy, rather than the deficiency that others perceive in him because he can’t express himself in recognised, neurotypical ways. It also has given us so many moments of unbridled joy and discovery that I don’t have the words to convey their significance in our lives.
Ultimately, FRANKENWEENIE is the tale of a boy who is different, isolated and misunderstood. The boy loses himself in film, and the adults find themselves as he shows them what love really is. In this way, and every other way, FRANKENWEENIE is the film of our lives.
Thank you to Clapham Picturehouse for the perfect family experience, an Autism-Friendly Screening of FRANKENWEENIE in a very special place.
- Antonia Lidder
METRO MANILA is a Tagalog-language social drama cum crime thriller from UK-based writer and director Sean Ellis. Filmed on location in Manila, it follows Oscar (Jake Macapagal), Mai (Althea Vega) and their two young daughters as they try to make a better life for themselves after leaving the provincial north for financial reasons.
Upon arriving in the city, Oscar and Mai quickly find themselves being scammed out of what little money they have, hungry and squatting in the slums. But finally Oscar gets a driving job, and his boss and co-driver Ong (John Arcilla) buys him lunch and a new shirt, and takes him to a bar for ‘boys’ night’.
Things then quickly take a different shape for Oscar and his struggling family. “After all I’ve done for you?” Ong asks Oscar. If there’s a crueller way to back someone into a corner in ten words or fewer, I don’t want to hear it. And neither does Oscar, who meekly accepts that he’s swapped rice fields and silk factories for Kevlar helmets and automatic rifles.
Good, honest people moving from the provinces to the big bad city for a new life that proves less than shiny isn’t a new trope, but it’s one that Ellis manages to refresh, in part through his use of location. Manila is a sprawling metropolis that separates shiny neon prosperity from grimy backstreets where cars pluck girls from the side of the road. It’s certainly more visually exciting and exotic than the Sainsbury’s we saw in Ellis’s debut, CASHBACK (2006).
METRO MANILA is an intense moral tale, as Oscar and Mai seem inherently good, just trying to make life better for themselves and their children. Their desperation is raw and ever-present, and what drives the film is the need to find out how far Oscar and Mai can be pushed, and to show us where their breaking points are. Their resolute hope comes from necessity rather than naivety.
The result is a tense, emotional thriller, with strong, believable performances and a concise, well-executed plot. I was on the edge of my seat.
Scolded by his long-suffering wife (June Squibb) and son David (Will Forte), cantankerous old Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is convinced he’s won a million dollars in a postal sweepstake and is determined to claim his prize, even if it means walking 850 miles to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect it.
Following THE DESCENDANTS, director Alexander Payne again examines how conflicting elements of the human spirit bind us together, as David decides to indulge his father and drive him to Lincoln. The ensuing road movie includes humorous encounters with avaricious relations and friends who buy into Woody’s delusion, and a nasty spat with an ex-business partner (Stacy Keach).
Consigned mainly to cameos since his glory days in THE DRIVER and THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS, Dern here delivers a masterfully poignant performance. Daringly shot in monochrome, NEBRASKA is also an elegy for a disappearing America.
Tickets are now on sale for special previews on Sunday 1 December.