With the potentially rich and colorful backdrop of New York City’s gay scene in the late-1960s through the ‘70s, I thought Continental (4/8) was going to be a lot more interesting a film experience than it was. But the key problem with this documentary about the legendary bathhouse – and the antics of its patrons, performers, staff and founder, Steve Ostrow – is its distinct lack of archival footage and photographs.
Instead, the film is mainly a string of talking heads and, though he’s certainly led a fascinating life, listening to Ostrow (who’s endearing in a grandpa kind of way) go on and on and on in long interview sequences does get tiring on occasion. Continental likewise takes some time to gain momentum, and its latter half – when it delves into the history of its star-making musical stage (where Bette Midler and Barry Manilow, among others, got their starts) – is much livelier than the first 40 minutes or so, but it’s a victim of telling the audience a story instead of showing them one.
By comparison, Muscle Shoals (8/8) is bursting at the seams with fantastic archival audio and film footage that sends this music-centric doc soaring. Muscle Shoals is a small town in Alabama where some of the biggest names in music – from Percy Sledge and Etta James to Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones – have recorded hit albums. The film tells the story of Rick Hall who, in the 1950s, opened FAME Studios and, with his crew of house musicians (nicknamed “The Swampers”) promptly began churning out hit records for some of the music industry’s soon-to-be superstars. Interviews with a wide array of performers (including Franklin, James, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Alicia Keys, Steve Winwood and a whole slew more) are peppered throughout, as is an abundance of kick-ass music. The result is a hugely rich tour through a previously unexplored section of music history, and a look at the brilliant – if under-recognized – talent behind some of the world’s best-known soul, rock and blues songs.