Opening September 27th, director Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier’s riveting documentary, Muscle Shoals, explores the Alabama town that became a musical mecca in the 60’s and 70’s and an unlikely breeding ground for some of America’s most creative music. At its heart is Rick Hall, the founder of FAME Studios who created the distinctive Muscle Shoals sound, and The Swampers, the legendary rhythm section at FAME that eventually left to start their own successful Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Through archival footage and interviews with Aretha Franklin, Greg Allman, Bono, Clarence Carter, Jimmy Cliff, Mick Jagger, Etta James, Alicia Keys, Keith Richards, Percy Sledge, and others, Camalier tells the story behind Muscle Shoals’ enduring magnetism, mystery and influence.
In an exclusive interview, Camalier revealed how a 1700-mile road trip led to a fascinating film about a rural place in Alabama with a rich musical history, why Muscle Shoals attracted so many great artists, how he convinced them to share their personal memories of laying down tracks there, why it was a game changer for many careers, how it continues to be a musical influence today, what it was like bringing Rick Hall and The Swampers together again after so many years, and his plans for a narrative feature and a new documentary. Hit the jump to read the interview.
GREG ‘FREDDY’ CAMALIER: I always felt that when I taught myself to play music. I was terrible in the beginning, but I always was big on that concept. You only have one time to learn something with a completely fresh approach and palette, because once that moment’s gone, it’s gone forever, and it can be a really cool way to approach something.
This is a very personal film. What inspired you to make it?
CAMALIER: I was really missing the creative aspect of my life, for one, and I knew I wanted to give filmmaking a shot. But I never in a million years would have guessed a documentary or have chosen a documentary. It felt like it chose us in a lot of ways. I remember, even in the beginning, as crazy as this sounds, I was trying to think of how not to direct it myself, because I was thinking if I was going to do something, I wanted to do a narrative. But it just ended up choosing us, and I ended up being the director by default. I’m so glad that happened, because it was this incredible journey for me, and I loved every moment of it.
I was on a road trip with my good childhood friend who was moving, and I helped him move his car, and we ended up in Muscle Shoals late one night. We [turned around and] drove backwards actually. It was like a 1700-mile road trip to sleep there. We were just immediately moved by the town and we researched its history that night before bed. And then, the next day, we just were having some real profound experiences, and that was the moment when there was the genesis of the film where I said to him, “I can’t believe no one has told this story. We should make a film about this place and this story.”
This is your feature debut. How did you find that experience?
CAMALIER: I’m happy with the final film. There were plenty of times where I didn’t know if I would be because I can be sort of hard on myself. I can be really self-critical. But I’ve got to say, I got to a place where I’m happy. I mean, there are a few things missing in the film that I found hard to lose. I had a whole different intro to the film which I always was attached to. But, I’ve got to say, I’m at peace with the film, which I didn’t know if I’d ever be, and I feel content.
How long did it take to make the film from beginning to end and how much footage did you shoot?
CAMALIER: It took about 3-1/2 years. We shot hundreds of hours, but I don’t know exactly how much. It was a lot.
CAMALIER: Yes. A lot. Many scenes. Like I said, I had this abstract intro to the film that I always loved, but people kept shooting it down. There’s a great sequence, some great stuff with Dan Penn performing, which I always wanted to keep in there. There’s a great thing on Aretha (Franklin) with Call Me, and a great sequence to the song Simple Man by Leonard Skynyrd. A lot of great stuff. Plus, all the other musicians who were a huge part of the story. But you can’t fit all those stories in there, so I have all these regrets.
How did you convince so many impressive artists and musicians to participate?
CAMALIER: Well, you chase everyone over and over, and by being tenacious. But the thing we had going for us was this great story which is like folklore amongst musicians. Musicians are usually willing to talk about those who came before them, who are these seminal figures in music, especially guys who have lived in anonymity and have never had their moment. That really is a big draw, plus the history that these Muscle Shoals guys contributed to. That was really the ace in the hole, I think, for getting a lot of these people to contribute time out of their insanely busy schedules.
You were able to get some amazing revelations from Rick Hall about his family life, what it was like in that era, and the experiences of various artists in the context of history. How did you go about building a relationship to get people to trust you and open up?
CAMALIER: A lot of that has to do with a sense of trust and your rapport. My partner, Steve Badger, did the interviews and he did a great job. For me, if I relate it to how I am, I get an instinct and a rapport with someone pretty quickly. Some people you feel comfortable with sharing more, and with other people, you may close down more. It’s just important to try to be yourself and to be genuine and hope that you get off on a good foot. But, for someone like Rick, a lot of that personal stuff took time. That took a lot of time of trust, of really starting a relationship and building a relationship. And then, as you get deep into it, even years into it with Rick, then you’re able to achieve another level of trust where someone’s willing to maybe share a lot more personal stuff.
There’s a wonderful scene towards the end of the film where you bring Rick Hall and The Swampers together. Had they ever repaired their acrimonious relationship after The Swampers left to create their own studio or is this when it finally happened?
CAMALIER: That’s a good question. I mean, so much time had gone by. Obviously, they had come to peace I think with what had happened. But, I got feedback from a lot of those guys after that day. It was one of the last days of shooting. We saved it for that, to have them all be together. A couple of the guys came up to me and it was like that was a really great day. More healing went down that day and they got a chance to say things to each other that they’d never said to each other. There was a lot of healing that went on that day that you could sense. Roger (Hawkins), the drummer, hadn’t even seen Rick until that moment on camera for like seven years or something, so that was neat.
Have they had an opportunity to see the film yet?
What was their reaction?
CAMALIER: Most of the guys, they all love it.
How about Rick? Has he seen it?
CAMALIER: Oh yeah, he loves it. He’s funny. He’s like, “Freddy, I’ve got to hand it to you. I don’t like anything. And if I don’t like it, I’ve got a hankering not to like it. But I’ve got to say, I loved that film!” And Rick would tell you if he didn’t. (laughs) He would not say that if he didn’t mean it. It was great.
What do you personally think makes Muscle Shoals so special?
CAMALIER: I think it’s the combination of these incredible people, their story, their upbringing, their tenacity, their sense of who they were mixed with this place, this kind of special place, and their environment mixed with them, and coming together like that with all the musicians down there. It’s a synergy between all of that.
It was fascinating to see how Muscle Shoals brought out the essence of these artists. Why do you think it was such a game changer for so many who came down there?
CAMALIER: I think it’s a reflection on them and how they approach music. They were soulful guys and they had this approach to music that they thought was how you made music. I happen to agree with them. It’s a great way to make music. It just contributed to their sound and their legacy and it left an indelible spirit in the music. There was an aliveness and a rawness and a human element that you could really touch and feel.
CAMALIER: Probably drawing those connections would be a crazy tree to draw. But I do think that the thing about Muscle Shoals that is so amazing is that it had an influence on soul music and R&B music and rock and Southern rock and country and even reggae with Jimmy Cliff. The thing about it is that early on it was contributing to all these genres of music. And so, music is this sort of flowing tree of the decades where people hear, and even if they’re not aware, they’re hearing things and they’re absorbing it into their musical palette whether they know it or not. They just contributed to so much music that’s iconic, even timeless music that still lasts today and holds up. Someone said that about the Muscle Shoals music. It really holds up even today. You put it on and it still holds up. And so, it just contributes in that way by the sheer volume and importance of the music that was created there which one way or another has affected musicians.
Who are some of the new artists that are coming out of Muscle Shoals today?
CAMALIER: Oh boy, lots. I mean, The Civil Wars, John Paul White, The Secret Sisters, Jason Isbell and Alabama Shakes who are right down the road. So, I mean, a lot of music. I was just down there recently for this Billy Reid festival and there were so many great bands. There’s a lot of young, really good bands that are up and coming out of there.
What do you hope will happen as a result of bringing this story about the musical legacy of Muscle Shoals to the attention of a global audience?
CAMALIER: Well, hopefully for one, that the Muscle Shoals music scene continues to thrive, which I think it will, regardless of the film or not. But hopefully, the film will help contribute to that. That would be cool to see that. I also hope that people come away feeling something. That’s always a great thing when you do a film. And then, just to shed its light on this incredible story that’s never had its day in the sun. So hopefully, some of those things would be cool.
What was the biggest surprise or discovery you made in the process of making the film?
CAMALIER: Lots. But I would say just the ever generational aspect of the musical essence of that place. Even before this story of Rick and The Swampers started, you had W.C. Handy and Sam Phillips and even the Native Americans. It just kept going back further and further the more you dug and it was still live music. So that was fascinating for such a rural little place.
CAMALIER: Anthony Arendt is just a great cinematographer. For me, I like finding people I like to work with and you get the chemistry right because that’s key to the creative process. And so, working with him was amazing, and all my camera guys, Carlos Doerr and Joel Hood, and my editor, Richard Lowe, and my buddy, Steve Badger, who produced the film, and Raji Mandelkorn, line producer and co-producer, and all these people. You try to find the people that you can thrive with creatively, and then you want to hang onto them because it’s an important part of the creative process, I think.
What did you learn about yourself in the process of making this?
CAMALIER: That’s a good question. That hopefully my left and right side of my brain can function well enough. (laughs) You need both those sides of your brain to direct. I didn’t know that and you really do. I just tried to learn to respect both sides of my brain. I hate to say the word “brain” because I don’t like the way that sounds, but that essence of yourself, those sides of yourself, to try to respect both of them and find the right balance between them because they’re both really necessary.
What are you working on next?
CAMALIER: I want to do a narrative film, but I obviously love documentaries, too. I’ve got something possibly in the works on the documentary front, but my heart lies in starting a narrative feature next.
Can you tell me anything about the narrative feature?
CAMALIER: No, I can’t really because I still need to write it. But I’m pretty excited about it.
What about on the documentary front?
CAMALIER: That’s something I’m approaching and that might happen as well, but I can’t talk about it yet.