Although we’re a music magazine, it’s actually rare that our favorite documentary of the year is a music doc. Even last year’s Academy Award winner Searching for Sugar Man, as much as we loved it, only placed third in our year-end list. Ondi Timoner’s seminal 2004 Dig! may have been the last music doc to top our charts.
But Muscle Shoals is the best documentary of the year. The fascinating story of the most important small town in rock and roll history, and the accompanying soundtrack, would have been enough, alone, to justify the ticket price. But Muscle Shoals has so much more than that—expert testimony (from the likes of Bono, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Gregg Allman and many more, including “The Swampers,” the Muscle Shoals players, themselves), sociological commentary (two studios famous for their racial harmony in small-town Alabama in the ’60s), and the Faulknerian life story of Rick Hall, the man behind the Muscle Shoals scene. As if that’s not enough, it’s one of the most beautifully shot documentaries we’ve seen in years, and Freddy Camalier has an impeccable ear for story.
All of which is even more amazing when you learn that this is Camalier’s first film.
“The story found us, really,” shrugs Camalier. “I was on a road trip with my childhood buddy. He was leaving his job on the East Coast and moving to New Mexico, and he needed help driving. We left Manhattan and decided we wanted to take the Southern route, and take backroads. And I sort of begrudgingly went at the beginning. I went to the chiropractor twice that week to get ready for the trip. And one day into the trip, it was just epic. We felt what it felt like to be young again, and you could just tell that magic was brewing. We’d drive until we got tired and pull over at the first place to sleep, we had no GPS, just a road atlas.”
Like Robert Johnson so many years before him, it was a decision at a crossroads that changed Camalier’s life forever. “We pulled over one night,” he recalls, “and saw a sign that said Tupelo, Miss. was ahead of us, and Muscle Shoals was behind us. Would you rather have the birthplace of Elvis, or the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Clarence Carter, and all those? So we turned around and drove 40 miles backwards and spent the night in Muscle Shoals. And pretty much instantly when we rolled into town, we felt the town’s presence. It impacted us immediately.”
That night, they did some research into all the music that had come out of Muscle Shoals, and they became more excited with each new discovery. The next morning, they set out to find the essence of the place, and wound up on the banks of the Tennessee River. “This place just emanated music,” Camalier says. “Sam Phillips was born there, a pretty seminal figure in rock and roll. W.C. Handy was born there, a pretty seminal figure in the blues. But long before then, the Native Americans believed that a muse lived in the river, and their name for it meant ‘The Singing River.’ But before we even knew that, we were down by the river and feeling its energy, and that was part of what impacted us. Growing up, water and rivers played a big part in my life. So this place spoke to both of us.”
Black and white proved to be a key part of the story, as so often happens with stories set in the South. “As we dug into the story,” Camalier explains, “you couldn’t deny the interesting intersection between where in America we were, which was in Alabama during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and the fact that you had all this amazing music come from out of there, from both black and white artists. And at first when we started interviewing people and they said there was no racism in the studio, we were wary of that. We just wanted to hear from a lot of people to confirm that. But the more people we interviewed, it became clear that here you are in the belly of the beast during the Civil Rights Movement, and these guys were making music together in a colorless way. It was a beautiful thing, and it was part of what made their music so magical and impactful.”
Still, they faced another struggle in portraying that part of the story. “Covering it in the film,” Camalier says, “I wanted to be really careful, because that subject has been covered a lot, in a lot of different documentaries. But it was cool to be able to show a different side of that story, another little perspective of that state in that time. “
At the time, though, not everyone understood the racial element of the Muscle Shoals scene. “Paul Simon heard the Staple Singers cuts out of there,” Camalier says with a wry grin, “as many other artists did, and a lot of people started wanting that sound. And he, like a lot of other people, just assumed there was no way that funky rhythm section was a bunch of white boys. He just assumed these were black musicians. So he called down to Al Bell at Stax, who had sent the Staples down there to cut those tracks, and he said, ‘For my next record, I want those same funky black musicians from the Staples cuts.’ And Al Bell said, ‘You can have them, but I hate to disappoint you, these guys are mighty pale.’
Stories like that are part of what makes the film work so well. But at the end of the day, documentarians have less than two hours (usually) to say their piece, and some great stories inevitably fall by the wayside. “There were so many amazing stories,” agrees Camalier, “that you just knew had to be in the film, too many. One of the ones that didn’t make it into the film was about Aretha. Aretha cut ‘Call Me’ with The Swampers in New York. We cut this beautiful sequence, but it didn’t make the film. She was getting divorced, and the song is a love song, so as she was singing it, she began to cry. And as she cried, the teardrops were hitting the music stand and splattering, and refracting the light and making these beautiful rainbows. And everyone in the control room began crying too.”
And that’s just one story that didn’t make the final cut. Muscle Shoals is an unforgettable experience, and Freddy Camalier is here to stay.