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‘Muscle Shoals’: Elegant documentary about a remarkable musical town

‘MUSCLE SHOALS’ ★★★★

Magnolia Pictures presents a documentary directed by Greg “Freddy” Camalier. Running time: 111 minutes. Rated PG (for thematic elements, language, smoking and brief partial nudity). Opens Friday at the Landmark Century Centre and available now on iTunes and on demand.

SCRATCH CRIB: Vocals from Alicia Keys, remembrances from Clarence Carter
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Updated: November 5, 2013 6:04AM



The Muscle Shoals sound was built out of conviction, rejection and raw vision.

These muscular characteristics are what connected filmmaker Greg “Freddy” Camalier with Fame Studio founder Rick Hall in the elegant documentary “Muscle Shoals.”

Hall put Muscle Shoals, Ala. (pop. 11,924), on the map in 1961 when he produced the Arthur Alexander hit “You Better Move On,” which was popularized by the Rolling Stones. He created from a dark and maverick energy that becomes the linchpin of the film.

Similary, Camalier never attended film school. “Muscle Shoals” is his directorial debut.

The output of country-infused soul music from Muscle Shoals is mind-boggling, which is why the doc rightly clocks in at 111 minutes.

Aretha Franklin ignited her career at Fame with hits like “I Never Loved a Man” and “Do Right Woman.” Wilson Pickett took no prisoners at Fame with “Mustang Sally” and “Land of 1,000 Dances.” Hall regards Pickett’s cover of “Hey Jude,” with guitar licks by session player Duane Allman, as the birth of Southern Rock.

Hall, who lived in Rockford as a teenager, came to Chicago to sell record exec Leonard Chess on Etta James. He produced James’ “Tell Mama” album, which resulted in James’ biggest hit. “Tell Mama” was written by Fame staff writer Clarence Carter, who had his own No. 1 hit in 1970 with “Patches.”

Among the many previously untold secrets in “Muscle Shoals,” Hall says that song is his story.

The late Barry Beckett (keyboards), Roger Hawkins (drums), Jimmy Johnson (guitar) and David Hood (bass) broke away from Hall in 1969 to create their own Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. They opened the studio in a former casket warehouse they called “the Burlap Palace.”

The hits kept coming. The Rolling Stones traveled to Alabama to record “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses.” Bob Seger’s smash hits “Night Moves” and “Mainstreet” were recorded at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Chicago’s Staple Singers had their crossover success with “I’ll Take You There” with lead singer Mavis Staples callling out names of the session players (“Barry, play your piano...”)

Camalier spent four years working on “Muscle Shoals.”

He was able to harvest interviews from Franklin, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Gregg Allman, whose tender remembrance arguably is the film’s highlight. Alicia Keys brings the sound into the present day with a 2012 gospel-tinged version of “Pressing On,” originally recorded by Bob Dylan in 1980 at Muscle Shoals for his “Saved” sessions. There’s footage from the now-deceased Pickett and James. Despite Muscle Shoals and Stax records being a pivot point for them, there’s nothing from the Staples family.

Or another family who sold 11 million records through Fame: The Osmonds’ early 1970s hits “One Bad Apple,” “Yo-Yo” and (appropriately) “Down by the Lazy River” were recorded at Fame.

These Muscle Shoals cats were not pretentious. They would play with anyone, black or white, young or old.

Camalier’s template is the colorful and lush texture of Muscle Shoals, located along the Tennessee River. He draws on the Native American legacy of the land as “the Singing River,” and I did not know Helen Keller came from the Muscle Shoals area until I saw the doc.

Camalier has seemed to use (credited) Peter Guralnick’s landmark 1986 book “Sweet Soul Music” as a loose road map. Guralnick calls Muscle Shoals “the third triangle” of the regional recording cities of Memphis, Tenn., and Macon, Ga. Sun Records founder Sam Phillips came from Florence, Ala., a stone’s throw from Muscle Shoals, a fact Camalier does not ignore.

The rural landcape created room for open expression.

Richards says he does not think the Stones have ever been as prolific as they were at Muscle Shoals. The rhythm section that broke off from Hall was named the Swampers, and when you listen closely, they are name-checked in the Lynyrd Skynyrd smash “Sweet Home Alabama,” recorded at the studio now on the National Register of Historic Places. The sound continues through groups like the Drive-By Truckers, whose vocalist-guitarist Patterson Hood is the son of David Hood.

The only place where “Muscle Shoals” runs out of steam is in updating the current status of the community. In 2004 the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio was on eBay. At one point Mark Knopfler was interested in purchasing it. Malaco Records owned it. In the end, the Swampers were part of the buyers’ group, and they want to make it a working studio again. Fame is still functioning at its mid-1960s location and recording artists like Bettye LaVette, Jamey Johnson and Band of Horses.

Do not leave the film until the last credit rolls by. Hall, 81, serves up some of his most powerful stuff, which he calls his “sermon for the day.” He speaks of the inner beauty of imperfection. He doesn’t care if a drummer falls off a stool as long as he doesn’t miss the beat. “Get back up and climb back up,” he says. “That’s a human element, there is force. So imperfections give it a human element, which I believe is what we need more today. That’s how you make magic and great records.”

And with that freedom of expression, Muscle Shoals made history.

Email: dhoekstra@suntimes.com

Twitter: @cstdhoekstra



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