A chance visit, to the breeding ground for the records he grew up with, proved a life-changing experience for director Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier. Lacking a “creative outlet” in his life, he suddenly felt compelled to tell the incredible story he’d stumbled upon, of Muscle Shoals, a tiny southern US backwater that inadvertently shaped the record collections of a generation.
His film “Muscle Shoals” looks at a place filled with some of the most uplifting, and important, music ever created. The titular Alabama town once played host to two world-class recording studios, both of which attracted droves of musicians eager to have this place’s hit-spawning magic rub off on them.
Part of the new wave of documentary makers presenting their subject matter in a new and emotive way, Camalier‘s film draws from old footage, new interviews and perhaps the greatest film soundtrack of all time.
Traditionally an orthodox and distinctly un-commercial genre, modern documentary making is now all about presenting the story in a new and exciting way. There are a multitude of films challenging the stereotype that non-fiction narratives are boring. These new films are a far cry from the days of corduroy-laden BBC2 informative programming.
With more platforms to show work on (arts festivals, dedicated cable channels and on-demand services all contribute to the explosion) there’s a new fervour for finding and presenting stories that should be shared. “Documentary filmmaking is getting so much better,” Camalier tells me, during the run-up to the DVD release of his film. “New techniques, and approaches to filmmaking, are becoming more sophisticated.”
A few years ago Camalier and his long-time friend, Stephen Badger, found themselves having to drive across the country. During their childhood the pair developed a shared love for the same powerful brand of American soul music. This was the motivation for making a detour to the tiny town, of Muscle Shoals in the middle of a 1700 mile road trip. But they had no idea of the magnitude of the story about to envelop them. “When we arrived in town, we had a profound experience. But, we couldn’t believe its story hadn’t been told.”
FAME, the music studio at the heart of this story, was founded by producer Rick Hall in the late 50s, whilst their competitor Muscle Shoals Sound was founded in 1969 by members of FAME’s original house band, The Swampers. Apart from a zip code, the thing both studios shared was the inexpressible quality of the Muscle Shoals sound, which blended Blues and Soul, all played with the good old spirit of Hillbilly Rock.
Aretha Franklin, who does a star turn in the film, dubs the studio’s sound as “greasy.” She’s not the only famous face that pops up here singing the praises of the two studios. The list of musicians appearing in Muscle Shoals reflecting on their experiences is nothing short of incredible. Etta James, Jimmy Cliff (pictured), Candi Staton and Keith Richards (amongst others!) all reflect on the impact visiting the town had on their lives.
More than a few people vehemently believe the town has a magical aura. Bono even going as far as saying: “the music comes out of the mud,” during his interview. “It was great to get footage with an international perspective. He’s obviously a musical historian, so he provided a lot of great insights,” Camalier proudly tells me.
So how do you even begin to tell a story that’s so large? Hundreds of musicians recorded in Muscle Shoals, including Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Gregg Allman. “There are so many little narratives inside the main narrative of the film I constantly struggled with ‘are we covering this enough?’ That’s the big challenge of a film with so much history to cover.”
At the core of the film is Muscle Shoals supremo Rick Hall. There’s a myriad of stories that surround the record producer, most either referring to his awkward nature and his knack for creating a hostile work environment, or the tragedies that beset his life. The film does an excellent job of reconciling the more reasonable anecdotes from his career, highlighting the considerable talent possessed by one of music history’s great outlaws. “He’s a lot like he comes across on the film. He doesn’t know another way. He only knows how to be himself. You see what you get with Rick, which is a great quality of his.”
For the first year, Hall didn’t think Camalier and his crew truly knew what the hell they were doing. Perhaps they didn’t, but their enthusiasm for the mesmerizing story of the town meant they slowly gained his trust. “Now we are all very close. That’s one of the cool things about this journey, the relationships that we formed along the way.”
Now, to follow on from the success of the film, Greg is working on several other projects, all of the film related. A couple of other documentaries are in the pipeline, and even talk of a feature film. So could film-making satisfy his need for a creative outlet? “100% I’ve been bit by the bug hard!
Muscle Shoals is available on DVD now.