Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Lasting Impact and Joy of Cross-Cultural Currents: Muscle Shoals and Hava Nagila (The Movie)

As long as there has been music there has been fertilization of different sounds and rhythms between musicians from various countries and continents. From African slaves bringing their music to America and giving birth to the blues and later jazz to the British, in turns, absorbing American tunes, and melding their essences to proffer their unique brand of rock and roll, music has functioned as one of the best ambassadors for cross-cultural connections and co-operation. Two new documentaries, Muscle Shoals and Hava Nagila (The Movie) attest to that fact, examining, in turn, a specific sound and one particular song, while offering some provocative theories as to why things turned out the way they did.

The terrific Muscle Shoals, which opens in the U.S. on September 27 and in Toronto on Oct. 4, and is crisply and smartly directed by Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier, refers, of course, to the famed Alabama town, and both the FAME Studios and the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio which have deservedly garnered a reputation, since 1967, as the petri dish for some great music – from the likes of The Allman Brothers, The Rolling Stones, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Traffic, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Clarence Carter, U2 and Steve Winwood, among so many others. (Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd referenced "The Swampers" – Barry Beckett (keyboards), Roger Hawkins (drums), Jimmy Johnson (guitar) and David Hood (bass) – aka The Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section who owned the studio, in their rock classic “Sweet Home Alabama.” But FAME Studios were the first to hatch the new sound before The Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section split to form the new incarnation in 1969.) The ‘Muscle Shoals’ sound is in many ways indefinable; for some reason, it just exists. And its practitioners can’t really explain it, either, though Winwood is convinced it has something to do with Muscle Shoals abutting the Tennessee river, theorizing that rivers are life forces, like the River Thames and the Mississippi River and others, that somehow contribute to the specificity and richness of a musical form. (Hey, it's as good an explanation as any as to why Muscle Shoals was what it was.)

The Rolling Stones recording at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio
Regardless, the studio has birthed such indelible songs as The Stones’ “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses”, R.B.Greaves’ “Take a Letter, Maria,” The Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” Paul Simon’s “Loves Me Like a Rock” and “Kodachrome,” Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” and “Old Time Rock and Roll” and key albums by Boz Scaggs (Boz Scaggs) Lynyrd Skynyrd (Street Survivors) and The Black Keys’ (Brothers) – this is just the tip of the iceberg – a cornucopia of music that put the studio on the map and kept it there, even until today. (Brothers, arguably The Black Keys’ breakthrough, was recorded in 2009 in the old Muscle Shoals studio – Hall and company had long since decamped in the late 70s to new digs – and clearly the successful vibe still took.)

Camalier calls the Muscle Shoals sound a "funky, soulful, propulsive kind of groove” but those are just descriptive words. Suffice it to say that the music from there rocks and rolls, touches the emotions and impresses with its passion and commitment. And the anecdotes told by those who worked and recorded there flesh it out, from the arrival of the startling and highly self confident Wilson Pickett, one of FAME’s earliest hits makers (“Land of 1,000 Dances”, his famed cover of Mack Rice’s “Mustang Sally”) to Mick Jagger and Keith Richard’s wry observations on exactly how much drugging and drinking they did when The Stones were recording their classic tunes there. That was much more imbibing than the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section members figured. As for their assumption being that the lads were largely sober during their sojourn at Muscle Shoals? Not quite!

The most inspiring and surprising story is that of Aretha Franklin who not only recorded some of her finest, most memorable songs in Muscle Shoal’s Sound Studio – “Respect," "Chain of Fools," and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” – but incredibly she had to go there to jump start a moribund career. (She had been grievously misused by her label Columbia Records, which had not the faintest idea of how to showcase this powerhouse diva. Thankfully, Muscle Shoals did.) Less successful was FAME’s failure to hold on to or nurture Duane Allman, later of the superb The Allman Brothers Band, a guitar wizard who blew everyone away when he played on Wilson Pickett’s scorching rendition of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” a song which the film says he suggested Pickett cover, but who got frustrated with how he was being used in those studio sessions and left for greener pastures. His highly varied session work is available on the hard to find, limited edition CD box set Skydog, which is supposed to be re-released in October.. (FAME’s founder, Roe Erister “Rick” Hall admits he didn't get The Allman Brothers Band’s sound and passed on the chance to record their first self titled album in 1969.)

'Rick' Hall outside FAME Recording Studios
But if the sound – most musicians think they do their best work in the Muscle Shoals studio – remains mysterious, despite all the rich anecdotes in the movie, “Rick” Hall, who formed FAME Studios and loomed over those musicians who left his employ to found Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, is only marginally more forthcoming. Oh, he speaks about a tragedy in his life which formed him, and has something to say about the studios’ ground-breaking integration among its house and visiting musicians (no small affair in the South, particularly in otherwise highly segregated Alabama, at that time). But he skirts around his fight with Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler – an argument between Hall and Aretha Franklin’s then-husband Ted White led to their creative split though Hall still allowed his musicians to play on Atlantic recordings (Atlantic put out many of the albums recorded at Muscle Shoals as the studios did not have the financial wherewithal to do so) – and really isn’t forthcoming in the way one would hope for in why he formed the studio and what he believes attributes to its huge success. (Incredibly he was about 80 years of age when the movie was made, but could easily pass for someone in his early to mid-sixties.)

But perhaps that doesn’t matter as much as it would in another doc as we still have the wonderful Muscle Shoals music. Listening to those great tunes – the film is generously festooned with them – in sharp digital sound over the movie theatres’ speakers is thrilling, a reminder not just of a peak creative time in popular music but a fascinating examination of how a small Southern town, not all that different from (the early 60s) musically off-the-beaten-track of Liverpool, the birthplace of the Fab Four, influenced musicians and singers from all across the world to lasting effect. Muscle Shoals is a miracle of happenstance, perhaps, but watching the movie, it makes believers of all of us who love great music.

I’m not sure anyone would ever call the quintessentially Jewish tune "Hava Nagila" a great song but Hava Nagila (The Movie), in limited release in the U.S. (a DVD release is set for November 4), succeeds in placing this maddeningly catchy piece of musical froth firmly within the pop cultural landscape. Pretty much any movie with a Jewish wedding scene, from Goodbye, Columbus (1968) and Private Benjamin (1980) to Wedding Crashers (2005), features it, a repetitive fact that has caused some to label it a Jewish cliché, chosen by lazy filmmakers who can’t showcase Jewish themes in any other meaningful way. Perhaps – but I've been to my share of Jewish weddings and I've never not heard it played, and usually more than once.

The virtues of the movie comes from its going behind the scenes to find out how this one song became the (easy) shorthand to a whole culture and people, and director Roberta Grossman and writer Sophia Sartain have certainly done her homework on that score. (Rusty Schwimmer effectively narrates.) I had absolutely no idea that "Have Nagila" could trace its genesis to 19th century Ukraine where it first came to light as a Jewish religious song sung in Orthodox synagogue services. (The Hebrew word for it is nigun, meaning tune or melody.) Jewish immigration to the U.S. saw it traveling to the New Land and undergoing few changes to its structure (other than being speeded up to how it sounds today) but with lyrics added. (Sticking to the truism of "two Jews, three views," there are two competing claims by families who say one of their members wrote the lyrics to "Hava Nagila"; I’ll leave it up to the viewer to decide whose is more convincing.) But why did it become the hit and symbol that it did? Like with Muscle Shoals, on one level, there is no real answer. But on another, this folk song came to reflect Jewish self image, its insecurity, its pride, particularly when it was played in the new modern state of Israel and, yes, its schmaltzier and sentimental aspects, all the various permutations Jews have always displayed in their frequent burrowing into popular – read American – culture. (Not surprisingly, even Bob Dylan, born Robert Zimmerman, sampled it, badly.) In many ways, like with lox and bagels, it seemed to become one way to hold onto a vestige of something identifiably “Jewish’ even as assimilation into the American mainstream was assured.

But not just Jews were taken by its jazzy, joyous sound. Singer Harry Belafonte cites it, along with “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” as one of the two most frequently requested songs in his repertoire. (You can see why – his rendition is lovely – but I’m not sure why Grossman chose to go with Belafonte singing it in a duet with Danny Kaye on the latter’s 60s TV show instead of tracking down a solo turn. It’s a bit distracting with Kaye in the picture.) And any number of non-Jewish superstars, from Latin sensation Celia Cruz to Lena Horne, who used its tune but set to a black power anthem (called "Now!"). have made it their own. Glen Campbell and Connie Francis (10% Jewish on her manager’s side, as she amusingly puts it) also performed it, the Italian Francis on an album of all Jewish material. It was even interpreted as a surf guitar song by Dick Dale, only briefly, alas, heard in the movie. A sign, however, that "Hava Nagila", is more than just a song is its incursion into comedic situations, too. Joanne Worley spoofs it on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In ("Hava nagila, have two nagilas, have three nagilas, they're pretty small.") and Allan Sherman wittily uses it as a paean/critique of the journey of Jewish upward mobility to the suburbs in his 1963 song "Harvey and Sheila". In the film, Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock) is one of the smarter observers on this score.

Hava Nagila (The Movie) is bit uneven tonally and even slight, as Grossman veers from sober, intelligent analyses of the song’s meaning and trajectory to overly jokey swipes at the tune. (Those who dislike the song, and I am not among them, are referred to as Hava haters, which is kind of silly.) But she ends the movie by positing "Hava Nagila" as having returned to, if not necessarily full respectability, then, at least, acceptance and even an embrace by many Jews, the non-Hava haters, who now recognize its cultural and religious value and importance to and in their community and religion. It’s Jewish enough, if you consider it on its own merits, but it’s universal, too, as a quick montage showcasing singers from Egypt to Iran, China to South Korea, all performing the tune proves. (There are no credits given here other than countries of origin of the performers but it’s safe to say that the Egyptian version likely pre-dates modern Israel’s formation and the Iranian rendition would date from before the 1979 Islamic revolution.) But it’s in Russian-born pianist Regina Spektor’s appropriation of "Hava Nagila" as a defiant expression of her Jewishness in an anti-Semitic culture which tried to eradicate Jewish self-expression where the deeper meaning of "Hava Nagila" is most poignantly displayed. As with Muscle Shoals’ unique sound, "Have Nagila" became more than the sum of its parts and, again like Muscle Shoals, an unlikely harbinger of an era and musical genre and, in this case, a people, who could affect and influence others who then reflected its song back to itself. It’s a cultural, permanent and rich cross fertilization that, finally, proves the Hava haters wrong.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he will be teaching a course on acting archetypes in the fall. He will also be giving two lectures on What Makes a Movie Great? on Wednesday October 2 and Wednesday October 9 from 7 - 9 pm at the Bernard Betel Centre (1003 Steeles Avenue West).

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