The unsung heroes of the music industry are taking center stage at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Dave Grohl’s Sound City, Morgan Neville’s Twenty Feet From Stardom and Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier’s (pictured) Muscle Shoals each introduce audiences to the engineers, producers, back-up singers and session players that helped create some of the most popular American music of the past 50 years.
A first-time director with no formal film school training, Camalier stumbled upon the folkloric story of Muscle Shoals, Alabama while on a road trip with a friend four years ago. The small Southern town is legendary among musicians as Mecca for the musicians who sought a taut, funky sound at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
Though FAME Studios producer Rick Hall and rhythm section The Swampers recorded hits such as “I’ll Take You There,” “Brown Sugar,” “When a Man Loves a Woman,” “I Never Loved A Man the Way That I Loved You,” “Mustang Sally,” and “Sweet Home Alabama,” the story of how they defied racial barriers – and stereotypes – to make music history had yet to be told in a definitive feature doc.
Through archival footage and interviews with Muscle Shoals alumni including Aretha Franklin, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Gregg Allman and Clarence Carter, Camalier takes viewers into the dueling recording studios that shaped the sound of American pop throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
Ahead of the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this week, first-time director Camalier spoke to realscreen from Park City, Utah to find out how a road trip led to a documentary about the Muscle Shoals sound.
How did you get the idea to make a movie about Muscle Shoals?
I was on a road trip with one of my best friends. He was moving to New Mexico from the East Coast and so we took back roads on the Southern route with no GPS. It was an incredible trip and we ended up in Muscle Shoals for one-night, and it was a life-changing day. Out of that day was born the film. We had no intention to make a film on that road trip and we had no intention of stopping in Muscle Shoals. It was a big journey for us.
Were you familiar with the town’s musical history at that point?
We knew some of the music we had loved came from there but we had no idea the magnitude of the music and how deep the story went. The town had a special feeling that we were drawn to, and discovering that incredible musical history – we were just blown away. I thought, I can’t believe this story hasn’t been told and we need to tell this story tomorrow.
Was it difficult to persuade Rick Hall of FAME Studios and the Swampers to participate in the film?
Rick was apprehensive at first but the Swampers were less so. They had all been approached over the years by several filmmakers but nothing ever came of it. I think Rick was apprehensive of whether this would be the real deal and result in a completed film. We built a relationship and level of trust, and they were willing to proceed down the path with us.
How did you decide to approach the story?
Having watched a lot of music documentaries, I didn’t want to follow the more widely trodden path of how one might tell that story. I also wanted it to feel cinematic – that was an early goal. Then I wanted to tell more than just the music story, but it takes a little time for the storylines to emerge that are going to be compelling. It became pretty clear early on that Rick’s personal journey was really feeling like a great spine, from which to tell the story of the music.
Muscle Shoals is one of three films about the history of the studio recording process playing at Sundance this year. Why do you think that topic is so relevant today?
So many reasons. Music being made by human beings – session players or band mates – playing together is the way to create music, versus people laying tracks down on top of the other; heavily produced. To me, that’s just one foundational way you begin to make great music. Just beginning with musicians coming together in a room – isn’t that sort of music the origins of humanity?
There’s also a racial dimension to the story in that these were black and white artists collaborating in the Deep South at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. What was the biggest lesson you learned in exploring that part of the film?
Hopefully today we’re well beyond racial make-up making any difference in terms of one’s love of music, who they are a fan of or whether [race] legitimizes anyone’s authenticity in terms of their sound. Hopefully a musician is just judged based on the music.
When we first started asking those questions and the first couple of interviews came in, it was all, ‘no, there were no race issue. We were color blind.’ We were thinking, ‘wow, really?’ This was Alabama in the sixties. So it was certainly a question we asked in every interview… and the perspective we got was that, inside the studio, they were colorblind and just making music together.
It was so cool because of the time period and where they found themselves: basically in the belly of the beast of the racist U.S. That’s a special part of the story and it’s amazing how those guys sounded so funky. Meeting [The Swampers], you wouldn’t think they are this funky sounding rhythm section, but they were.