Recording the sound of a city

October 17, 2013
Producer Rick Hall, left, and musician Clarence Carter talk neckwear in the FAME Studios booth in Muscle Shoals, Ala. (Magnolia Films)
Producer Rick Hall, left, and musician Clarence Carter talk neckwear in the FAME Studios booth in Muscle Shoals, Ala. (Magnolia Films)

Bethesda native Greg “Freddy” Camalier didn’t set out to make a film about the music of Muscle Shoals, Ala. He didn’t think his first film as a director would be a documentary, either. But on a road trip to help a friend move from the East Coast to New Mexico in 2008, the pair took a detour — backtracking 40 miles — and found something magical.

“That place spoke to us,” says Camalier, whose movie, “Muscle Shoals,” opens Friday. “We were drawn to it.”

In Muscle Shoals, Camalier learned the story of a small city that created a sound — a country rhythm and blues — that would help define music in the ’60s and ’70s. At FAME Studios, under the supervision of owner-producer Rick Hall and with house band The Swampers, Aretha Franklin recorded “Respect” and her career was made. Later, when The Swampers left FAME to start Muscle Shoals Sound Studio across town, The Rolling Stones cut “Brown Sugar” there.

“Muscle Shoals” traces the history of a place that, as the film opens, Bono describes as “magic.” Camalier tells the story of Hall, The Swampers and the town through music and interviews with those involved, including Franklin, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger.

One of the stars of the film is FAME’s Rick Hall, who basically invented the Muscle Shoals sound. What made you want to delve deeper into him?
What didn’t draw me into him? When you’re around him, he is a very powerful character. Charismatic, strong, fascinating. His story — the combination of his personal story, with him being the forging factor of the fire of Muscle Shoals music — I thought was central.

You get the sense that The Swampers — a bunch of anonymous white guys making what sounded to outsiders like black music — are so humble about their place in rock history.
It’s a testament to their character. And I’m sure that their humility and their selflessness was an integral part in why they were such a good rhythm section and backing band. And why they could play on so many different styles of music with so many different artists. The great cool musicians seem to be that way. They realize that the music is bigger than themselves.

When you went through FAME Studios and filmed there, what did you feel?
The first time I walked in there, you could just feel the history. … It really hasn’t changed much since then. It’s all the same couches and they’ve got pictures on the wall that have been there the whole time. The same wood paneling. It’s intact.

You were in the room filming the interviews with all these music legends. Was that intimidating?
It was surreal. I would have thought I would have become unhinged or off my mark a little but I wasn’t, which was good because that would have been bad. [But] when Alicia Keys showed up, she knocked me off my mark.

West End Cinema, 2301 M St. NW; opens Friday, $11; 202-419-3456. (Foggy Bottom)

Rudi Greenberg is Express' Weekend Pass editor and comedy columnist.
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