June 22, 2015

Rant + Review Corner

No, the Pope will not be mentioned.

I watched two very good documentaries. Both The Wrecking Crew and Muscle Shoals celebrate the uncelebrated studio musicians who created an unconscionable number of the hit songs with which I grew up.

Both are well worth your time and money. I watched them on successive nights and would recommend both in proximity. Because they're the same -- only they're not.

Wrecking Crew was made by Tommy Tedesco's son, Danny Tedesco. It's a little lower budget and a lot less "artsy." Tedesco is telling the story of his famous father that nobody has ever heard of, but whose music everyone has heard. It's a good story told well. Tedesco peré had a regular column in Guitar Player magazine with the same humor he exhibits on screen. So, I knew him.

Muscle Shoals has a little more budget, some big names, and much more artistic cinematography. Both movies have the gift of insanely good soundtracks, lovingly wrapped in the stories they tell. Muscle Shoals perhaps feels more like a movie and less like an informative seminar at your local library.

Yet, the artistic side leads it into some philosophical weeds. Behind the truly spectacular footage of the Tennessee river, we are told the story of the Yuchi Indian tribe who called the Tennessee River the Singing River because they believed a woman who lived in the river sang to them. Now that is a great story. And, were I contracted to tell the story of why a little backwater berg in Alabama and a crew of White Crackers who inhabited it would come to be a huge part of R&B music, I too would not have been able to resist "The Singing Lady."

Bono adds a little flavor, suggesting that rivers are always important to music: The Mersy in Liverpool, The Mississippi for blues, the Tennessee by Muscle Shoals... "Maybe music just needs the mud," says Bono, poetically behind his trademark sunglasses.

But they are all wrong! It is so much more prosaic -- but the economic explanation is somehow more beautiful. Music goes to rivers because people go to rivers. And people -- as these documentaries make clear -- make music.

The other beautiful part of the real, praxeological story, in the wake of have crimes in Charleston, is that much of the magic in Muscle Shoals was integration. Black artists came from the North, not really expecting to see so many white players. (The funniest part of the film is Wilson Pickett's describing the trip from airport to the studio. As he drove past cotton fields, he asked accusingly: "is that what I think it is?")

But the bands were integrated in both movies. Players don't care [full disclosure: the most talented group with which I was ever involved was an eight-piece disco band in 1980 and I was the only Person of Pallor]. And the lads in Muscle Shoals credited the diversity with creating a rich American gumbo of blues and country and bluegrass and R&B. I thought of Matt Ridley's "Ideas having sex:" beautiful music's having mixed race parents not unlike the lovely mixed-race exotic supermodels. I've long been a reverse-eugenicist.

More prosaic still was the Randian superhero that is Rick Hall. Born into poverty, rejected by his mother, he admits that his drive was fueled by bitterness. But he creates it. He builds the studio (Yes, Senator Warren...), he hires the players, he finds Percy Sledge singing his songs from the cotton fields to hospital patients, brings him in the studio, cuts "When a Man Loves a Woman" and calls Jerry Wexler of Atlantic and sells it to him over the phone.

Hall had much but lost much. Every record, he explains, was make-or-break. He had to make a #1 hit or the phone would stop ringing. So he drove the players, the artists, and himself -- and that produced a lot of quality -- even Keith Richards agreed.

I highly recommend both flicks. And you may choose the poetic or prosaic explanation: whichever you prefer. But there is a quiet beauty in celebrating human creation.

Music Posted by John Kranz at June 22, 2015 11:32 AM
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