Because of the indelible stamp that Muscle Shoals, Ala., has made on popular music, it’s surprising that it has taken decades for a documentary about the city of 13,000 to emerge. The Rolling Stones, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Paul Simon and reggae legend Jimmy Cliff have recorded some their best work in the studios there.
Curiously, it took a former real estate salesman named Greg “Freddy” Camalier to document the outsize contributions the city has made to rock and funk. Speaking from Boulder, Colo., the novice director recalls visiting the city on a whim.
On a vacation, he and a friend chose between Tupelo, Miss. (the birthplace of Elvis Presley), and Muscle Shoals as a place to visit. He says it didn’t take him long to fall in love with the town and its history. He also discovered that he might have been the first filmmaker to tell the story.
“I was shocked,” he says. “It’s been around for a while, and thefact that nobody had told it was very surprising to us. It was added motivation to tell the story because it hadn’t been told and deserved to be told.”
Muscle Shoals provides generous samples of the hit tunes that emerged from there and the, as Aretha Franklin puts it, “greasy” sound that’s unique to R&B recordings made there. When asked why the town has had such an outsize impact, Camalier replies, “The local guys down there were determined to make it happen, and they were driven and tenacious. And they happened to come from a really musical place, and they went out and made history.”
Muscle Shoals also reveals that many of the house bands that played in the studios for Pickett and Franklin were white. While the rest of Alabama was run by arch segregationist Gov. George Wallace, color barriers disappeared during Muscle Shoals recording sessions.
“It’s a tribute to them [the musicians and engineers], and it’s an integral part of their history,” Camalier says.
Camalier might be new to filmmaking, but part of the reason his film has opened to solid reviews is that he is a picky consumer of documentaries like the one he has made.
“I’ve watched a lot of music documentaries, and I knew I wanted it to be different,” he says. “I didn’t want it to be just a journalist piece about blah-blah-blah, this music was recorded here. I wanted a human element. That’s usually the most compelling part of the story, so we went looking for that.”
The film focuses on Rick Hall, the 81-year-old founder of the first major studio in the city, FAME (Florence,Ala., Music Enterprises). After nearly 50 years of running the facility, the producer is still helping people like Alicia Keys, who performs in the film, find the ideal sound. He has achieved a lot despite losing his wife in a car wreck, the departure of some of his house bands (including the legendary Swampers) and his own battles with alcohol.
Camalier remembers having little difficulty getting Hall to discuss his turbulent life and formidable career.
“Rick’s not easily impressed,” the director says. “You know you build trust with someone as you go along with the process, and they share more and more, hopefully. He went to a lot of secret places, private placesfor him, and some of those things were hard to talk about for him, for sure. Him doing that was a key component of the film. It touches people. I really respect him for that. Rick emerged as this kind of narrative arc through which to tell this story.”
The Swampers, who were name checked in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” ran a rival studio. During the ’70s, Muscle Shoals managed to keep both studios going.
“Can you imagine that? At one point, when they started to be prolific, I think there were about a dozen studios at one point open there,” Camalier says.
If Muscle Shoals has celebrated the city’s musical legacy, it has also boosted the fortunes of another local business, the town’s movie theater.
“The film has screened there quite a few times, and it’s going to open there,”Camalier says. “That feels lucky because as an artist, nobody wants to see their work sitting on the shelf. A lot of films have a hard time getting to their audience.” (For Philip Martin’s review of Muscle Shoals, go to blooddirtangels.com.)
MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 10/18/2013
Print Headline: Muscle Shoals scores movie