'Muscle Shoal'-mates: 'Freddy' Camalier documents the small town with a big sound that changed American music

For much of its history, Muscle Shoals, Alabama, was just a sleepy rural town on the Tennessee River. But 50 years ago it suddenly became a hotbed of American pop. Two recording studios—FAME Studios and the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio—attracted stars as varied as Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Elton John. The Swampers, in-demand session musicians who helped craft the "Muscle Shoals Sound," performed on dozens of hit songs. And through groups like The Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd, Muscle Shoals became the birthplace of what would be called "Southern rock."

Now Muscle Shoals, a feature-length documentary being released by Magnolia Pictures, tells the story behind the music. For his first movie, director Greg “Freddy” Camalier gathered interviews with Aretha Franklin, Mick Jagger, Bono, Gregg Allman and other celebrities, along with archival footage that captures the Muscle Shoals scene in its prime.
Camalier was helping drive his friend Stephen Badger to New Mexico when they stopped in Muscle Shoals overnight. "That first 24 hours moved me so much," Camalier says by phone from his home in Boulder, Colorado. "The moment the film came to us was when we were completely out in nature by ourselves. The landscape became part of the story."

Camalier was always a fan of Southern rock—"Skynyrd was the second album I ever bought"—but at first he wasn't aware how important a part Muscle Shoals played in the music he loved. The more he researched, the more he felt the subject deserved a documentary. Even though he never attended film school and has what he calls a "zero" background in visual arts, he began a four-year process to put the Muscle Shoals story in a movie.

Many musicians were eager to help with the project. Camalier singles out Franklin, who recorded her first significant hit at FAME Studios, for her help. "Coming to Muscle Shoals was the turning point," she reveals. "That's where I recorded ‘I Never Loved a Man,’ which became my first million-selling record." Her story goes on to include threats, fights, feuds that lasted decades, and songs like "Respect" and "Chain of Fools."

Remarkably for the time, and location, FAME was an integrated studio. Along with Franklin, Wilson Pickett ("Mustang Sally") and Percy Sledge ("When a Man Loves a Woman") recorded hits at the studio, backed by The Swampers—friends who started out playing cover songs at fraternity parties. "A lot of people couldn't believe that my whole band was white guys," Sledge recalls.

U2 co-founder Bono and Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards both praise the sound of recording studios in Muscle Shoals. Franklin calls it "greasy" and "funky," and even Atlantic executive Jerry Wexler chose it over facilities in New York City. The film captures the glee Swampers member Roger Hawkins felt when Wexler praised his drumming, still palpable over 40 years later.

The archival material in Muscle Shoals includes 8mm footage of a FAME Studios session, commissioned by founder and owner Rick Hall; takes from a 16mm color documentary shot by a Swedish crew; scenes from a 1977 Bill Graham concert documentary that shows Lynyrd Skynyrd performing in Oakland; and footage of The Rolling Stones from Gimme Shelter, the Albert and David Maysles documentary.

Camalier and Badger agreed that a chronological approach to the Muscle Shoals scene was the only one that made sense. "There was so much going on that if you messed with the chronology, it would be too much to follow," the director explains. "We needed that order and structure because there were so many storylines."

Structure also helped because Camalier was essentially going into the project blind. Not only were he and Badger novices at filmmaking, but his line producer Raji Mandelkorn had never worked on a feature before. Camalier found Tony Arendt, his director of photography, on the recommendation of a friend, cinematographer Carlos Doerr, and picked editor Richard Lowe after looking at "tons" of reels of personal footage.

"You rely sometimes on instinct," Camalier says of how he built a crew. "If you're a football coach, it's not just how fast a guy can run the 40-yard dash, or how much he can bench-press. It's not the x's and o's, it's the intangibles."

Camalier wanted the documentary to look current, not just talking heads and archival footage. With Arendt's input, he decided to use the landscape around Muscle Shoals as a way to transition between scenes.

"I would never make another film without him," the director says about Arendt. "Although I got a reputation with him because of my questions. He'd say I'd call in the middle of the night and be like, 'Tony, if two trains leave Chicago at the same time...'"

Camalier preferred to shoot his interviews with three cameras "for texture," but admits that sometimes he had to grab what he could take. "You're on micro-time because you're very aware that these folks are busy and you're only going to get a certain amount of time," he says. "You have to be extremely organized, ready to go. Again, there are a lot of intangibles. You're weighing the person's interest in your question against did I miss something, was there a sound problem. You're weighing the questions you have left against the time. Then you're thinking: Can I ask them to go back or comment more on something? It's a lot of pressure."

Camalier knew that the key to the documentary was Rick Hall, an obstinate, mercurial but undeniably talented producer whose life reads like a Flannery O'Connor story. As the film progresses, Hall reveals more and more about the unnerving tragedies that have dogged his life.

"We became very close," Camalier says, "but it took a while, more than a year, to gain Rick's trust. We didn't know him at first, and then he had a sort of manuscript of his life that he shared with us. But it wasn't until well into the documentary that he was willing to talk about what happened to him."

Money and pride help lead to a break-up between Hall and The Swampers in the 1970s. Camalier and his crew helped engineer a reconciliation that appears toward the end of Muscle Shoals. But Camalier deflects credit for the reunion.

"It's a small town and those guys see each other around," he argues. "A lot of time had gone by, the guys had mellowed and come to peace with what happened. I don't remember how we first approached them, but I know their meeting was one of the very last shoots of the film. They were all open to it."

Questioned further, Camalier eventually admits that Rick Hall and Roger Hawkins hadn't spoken to each other in years. "The guys told me afterwards that they got to say stuff to each other face to face that had never been said before," he says. "It was like a healing, and I'm so glad they got a chance to sit and look each other in the eye while they were all still here."
Camalier plans to move into narrative, and has a project he's anxious to start work on. While he's keeping the subject under wraps for now, he will say that he wants his movies to project positive images. "There's so much dark energy in the world, and you know what? As far as filmmaking goes, that niche is covered. A lot of dark stuff is being pumped out, and I don't need to add to that. I'm not saying there won't be tragedy and dark elements in my work, but it takes a lot of time to make a movie, and I want to focus on redemption and hope."

These days few first-time directors get a documentary slot at Sundance that earns them a theatrical release. But Camalier put in the work. "I've worn so many hats on this production," he jokes. "I was location scout, production designer, writer, producer. I've learned more than I care to, really. But I knew that if I wanted to do something in the film world, I needed to play catch-up quickly. I'm getting a late start, I don't have decades in front of me."