How the music happened in ‘Muscle Shoals’


The documentary “Muscle Shoals” comes to the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival at the Chilmark Community Center on Wednesday, August 14, and it screens at the Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown on Thursday, August 15. This film takes its title from the tiny northern Alabama town on the Tennessee River that fostered a remarkable blend of white country and black soul music in the 60s and 70s.

The Muscle Shoals sound attracted major bands and musicians of the era, ranging from The Rolling Stones and the Allman Brothers to Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, who came to record in its studios. The creative genius behind the little town’s recording industry was local music entrepreneur Rick Hall. He built FAME Studios from scratch and put together a roster of local back-up musicians nicknamed the Swampers. The Swampers were white, but the recording stars they backed were top black musicians like Aretha Franklin, Arthur Alexander, and James Carr.

The music business has traveled a long way since the analogue days of the Muscle Shoals sound, but director Greg Camalier’s tribute vividly captures its importance in music history. The Colorado-based realtor was on a road trip with a friend who was relocating to New Mexico when the two stopped in Muscle Shoals in 2009. They had driven past the town but turned around to visit, and its ambience so captivated Mr. Camalier that he decided to make a documentary about it. “Muscle Shoals” represents his first venture into filmmaking, and it won a place at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival alongside other documentaries about the music business like “Sound City” and “20 Feet from Stardom.”

“It’s such a massive story,” Mr. Camalier said in a recent telephone interview with the M.V. Times. “It [the Muscle Shoals sound] spawned so many genres of music — soul, rhythm and blues, Southern rock, rock and roll.” He emphasized that a big part of the Muscle Shoals sound came out of what local musicians did while recording live, in contrast to today’s more engineered digital sound where musicians may not even be in the same room to produce the end result.

Although now based in Boulder, Colo., Mr. Camalier grew up in Maryland where his older brothers dubbed him Freddy after a newspaper cartoon strip character. He still uses the nickname, even though he’s never seen the strip it came from. “It’s on my bucket list,” he said.

“Rick [Hall] is the protagonist,” he says of the documentary. “But there’s a lot of characters in the film.” That includes many of the backup musicians and big-city producers like Jerry Wexler who didn’t realize at first that the sessions musicians were white.

U-2’s Bono, Keith Richards, Etta James, Alicia Keys, Percy Sledge, and many other major musicians are generous with their comments about the Muscle Shoals music scene. Spot-on interviews by the film’s co-producer, Stephen Badger, go a long way toward explaining the magic that drew so many musicians to Muscle Shoals.

While the film’s talking heads provide plenty of interest, Mr. Camalier also interweaves engrossing anecdotes about Mr. Hall’s sometimes tragic history, about the interracial mix of musicians who recorded together despite the racism of the era, and about the politics of the sound studios that developed in Muscle Shoals. Unlike many documentaries, “Muscle Shoals,” is a visual pleasure as well as informative.

“I tried to have it hold up as a documentary,” Mr. Camalier said. He incorporates stunningly lush shots of Muscle Shoals, the Tennessee River (called River of Songs by Native Americans), and the surrounding countryside to explain how the place itself helped inspire the music made there.

Mr. Camalier will attend the “Muscle Shoals” screenings next week and field questions. A 1988 day trip is the director’s only previous visit to Martha’s Vineyard. “I cruised around the Island on a moped, but I always wanted to come back,” he said.

“Northern Borders,” the second of two films by Vermonter Jay Craven, the second of the M.V. Film Center’s filmmakers in residence, will screen Thursday, August 8, in that venue. It tells the 50s story of a boy living with his grandparents on a Vermont farm.

The music documentary “20 Feet from Stardom,” the story of the backup singers behind many music greats, opens Friday, August 9, at the Film Center. Playing this week in the Film Center’s Midnight@ten series is the 1968 classic, “The Graduate.” “The World Is Funny” is featured this weekend in the M.V. Hebrew Center’s Summer Institute Film Series.

“Jimmy Tingle’s American Dream” plays Monday, August 12, at the Film Center, in a special event including a live performance with the Boston comedian. “Into the Deep: America, Whaling & The World” screens there Tuesday, August 13, with filmmaker Ric Burns in attendance.

“Northern Borders,” Thursday, August 8, 7:30 pm. M.V. Film Center, Vineyard Haven. $12; $7 M.V. Film Society members.

“20 Feet from Stardom,” Friday, August 9, and Saturday, August 10, 7:30 pm, M.V. Film Center. Tickets, see above.

“The Graduate,” Midnight@ten series, Friday, August 9, and Saturday, August 10, 10 pm, M.V Film Center. Tickets, see above.

“The World Is Funny,” M.V. Hebrew Center Summer Institute Film Series, Sunday, August 11, 8 pm, M.V. Film Center. $12 suggested donation.

“Jimmy Tingle’s American Dream,” Monday, August 12, 7:30 pm, M.V. Film Center. $25; $20 M.V. Film Society members.

“Into the Deep: America, Whaling, and the World,” Tuesday, August 13, 7:30 pm, M.V. Film Center. $12; $7 members. For tickets and information on all M.V. Film Center films and events, see

“Muscle Shoals,” Wednesday, August 14, 8 pm, Chilmark Community Center. Thursday, August 15, 8 pm, Harbor View Hotel, Edgartown. $16; $8 M.V. Film Festival members; $5 students. For tickets, information, and Cinema Circus schedule, see