On this day when Kamala Harris became the first black woman in history to assume the duties of President of the United States—and when Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of killing two people and injuring a third during a protest—I somehow found myself taking the time to watch Muscle Shoals, which is a documentary about a recording studio in northern Alabama. Or, really, about a couple recording studios and the people who both created them and recorded in them.
Life is strange this way.
I mean, how do you juxtapose these kinds of things? How many ways can you read between lines and draw out parallels and meanings and whatever the hell else us humans do with stories and narratives and our need to feel connected—our need to feel we’ve left things better for being here? How do you find the core in a world where even today a kid can walk down the street with an assault weapon and kill people? How do you separate protest and violence and vigilantism and regression and progress? How do you place in context the ascension of a multi-racial black woman to the position of highest power in the country on this very same day? How do you square the idea that you knew without too much uncertainty that Kyle Rittenhouse was going to go free the day it happened. We’ve seen it before, of course. Bob Dylan made a chunk of his career signing about Hurricane, Medgar Evans, and Hattie Carroll. There are pawns and games, I suppose, and that’s how you square it. Almost.
Life is full of questions.
Then along comes Muscle Shoals.
I should probably say that I’m kind of a documentary guy—or at least I’ve become one in the past few years. I can find almost anything interesting if I let myself get into it. I think it has to do with a fondness for watching people and thinking about the world around us. Assuming you love music (and, really, who doesn’t?), I’d strongly suggest this one is worth the nearly two hours it’ll take you to absorb it.
But even if, for some God-forsaken reason, you’re not into music, I’d suggest you look into Muscle Shoals. It’s a sneaky thing, this little documentary. A powerful thing, this story of pop music and R&B and … well … whatever, set in the deepest of the deep south during a span of time that ran from segregation through the last of the civil rights movement to wind up where it is, and we are, today. It makes you think. It just makes you see things the way you’d really like to see them. It shows you a world where people create things together in ways that are, simply put, as magical as they are human.
How does art come together?
I don’t know. Even after watching this documentary, I don’t know. But it does, doesn’t it? As one of the interviewees notes in the early stages of the movie, “you never know when you’re making history,” but when things are good, and even when things are not good, people can find ways to be amazing without even knowing they’re doing it.
Time changes things—as long as we let it change things, anyway.
Or perhaps as long as we make it change them.
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I think Muscle Shoals streams on Netflix. But you can also find it here: