How does a novice filmmaker, and a documentary filmmaker at that, get access to some of the world’s biggest rock, pop and R&B stars for his inaugural low-budget project?
That was relatively easy for Greg Camalier — he just chose a subject all had exceptionally passionate feelings about. In this case, Camalier was able to enlist Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bono, Aretha Franklin, Alicia Keys, Gregg Allman and many other veterans to talk about the musical magic that seemed to flow so consistently out of recording studios in rural Muscle Shoals, Ala., the subject of his documentary, “Muscle Shoals.”
Born and raised in the Washington-Virginia region, Camalier said he became inspired to try filmmaking while on a road trip helping a friend move from New York to New Mexico, during which they decided to explore the geography and culture of the south by traveling many of its back roads.
“We were driving and saw on the map that Tupelo, Miss., was in front of us, and Muscle Shoals was behind us,” he said. “The choice was do we go see Elvis’ birthplace, or go to Muscle Shoals. We chose Muscle Shoals.”
Camalier, an amateur guitarist who loved southern rock groups including the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd, knew those bands had made some of their records in Muscle Shoals. “But I didn’t know the deep history and just how much music had come out of there,” he said.
The two things that convinced him to tackle it as the subject of a documentary film were “This story had never really been told, and the story of Rick Hall,” referring to the dynamic founder of the Fame Recording Studio that yielded so many hits in the ’60s and ’70s by Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Clarence Carter, Arthur Alexander and numerous others.
So distinctive was the music that emerged from Fame that it created what came to be known as “the Muscle Shoals sound,” identified by powerful grooves, funky arrangements and typically soul-wrenching vocal performances.
One of the highlights of the documentary is hearing Franklin talk about how her first visit to Muscle Shoals with Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler, after five frustrating years making smooth pop-jazz recordings for Columbia, was “the turning point in my career.” It was at Muscle Shoals, she and others agree, that “the Queen of Soul” was born.
Some elements of the story “were almost too much to be believed,” Camalier said. Among them, the alliance that esteemed Wexler formed with Hall and Fame after his falling out with Stax Records co-founder Jim Stewart in Memphis, followed by a rift between Wexler and Hall that fundamentally altered the situation for both men as well as Hall’s accomplished band of studio musicians known as the Swampers.