Greg “Freddy” Camalier, a former commercial real estate agent from Boulder, Colorado, will premiere his first film, Muscle Shoals, at Sundance on Saturday. While on a road trip with a childhood buddy, Camalier discovered the Alabama town, home to the recording studios that hosted rock’s most renowned artists and birthed some of its most legendary albums.
“We wanted to take the southern route, and we would just drive ’til we got tired,” Camalier told Rolling Stone. “One night we pulled over and we saw Muscle Shoals behind us, and we turned around and drove backwards to spend the night in Muscle Shoals. We both knew some of the music that we loved all our lives was from there but had no idea of the magnitude.”
The film unpacks the town’s musical significance by focusing on the two primary local studios – Fame and Muscle Shoals Sound – as well as the colorful personalities behind those studios, including producer Rick Hall and the house band the Swampers. (Lynyrd Skynyrd fans will remember the town’s shout-out on “Sweet Home Alabama” and Ronnie Van Zant’s line, “Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers . . .”).
But the documentary’s real highlights are the musings of the musicians who recorded there. Performers including Bono, Aretha Franklin, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Jimmy Cliff and Steve Winwood reflect on what made the town “magic,” as Bono puts it. Artists were not only prolific in Colbert County, but their recordings were often infused with a recognizable sound Camalier describes as a “funky, soulful, propulsive kind of groove.
“There’s beautiful things out there, and magical things. This place, for whatever reason, just emanated music and had a certain energy to it,” Camalier said. “And it seems to have emanated that for a long time, and I think that was obviously complimented by driven people.”
The film explores the social elements converging in the region at the time and the impact that race-blindness inside the studio had on the Muscle Shoals sound. There’s also a live performance of Alicia Keys covering Dylan’s “Pressing On” recorded at Fame.
Camalier believes the town’s significance is the result of a serendipitous fusion: “The coming together of races at that time, as well as the landscape and this rural, beautiful town, as well as the singing river, as well as these incredible characters and all the other musicians down there – it all sort of came together.”