- Cullman, Alabama


January 29, 2013

Ala. music roots traced at Sundance Film Festival

PARK CITY, UTAH — Incredible. Amazing. Moving.

Those were just a few of the comments by some of the Shoals music scene’s pioneers after seeing the premiere of “Muscle Shoals,” a documentary that traces the formative years of the Muscle Shoals sound.

The film debuted Saturday in the packed Eccles Theater during the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, which ended Jan. 27.

“From my perspective, it was incredible,” said Rick Hall, founder of FAME Recording Studios, whose story played a prominent role in the film.

Hall said some parts of the film brought many, himself included, to tears.

“I was wiping tears from my eyes tonight,” said Jimmy Johnson, a member of The Swampers, one of Hall’s rhythm sections at FAME, who went on to form Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, which also was featured in the film.

“Nobody left at the end,” Johnson said. “They said that’s never happened here.”

Johnson said he, Hall, fellow Swamper David Hood and other local artists attending the premier went on stage afterward to participate in a question and answer session.

“I would say it was as accurate as I’d ever want,” Johnson said. “It can’t be perfect. In this type of situation, there are different points of view. People saw things differently.”

Hall said one question was, after all the “trials and tribulations” between him and The Swampers after they left to open their own recording studio, did they ever “get back together.”

“We told them yes, not only are we back together, but we’ve loved each other all our lives,” Hall said.

He said the split actually helped create even more great music and hit records.

“Looking back, it’s a blessing,” Hall said. “You put their music together with my music and all the other studios and producers, it makes it a whole lot bigger.”

Songwriter and keyboardist Spooner Oldham said the film gave him chills a couple of times.

In the early years, Oldham and Dan Penn, who co-wrote hits including “I’m Your Puppet” and “Sweet Inspiration,” would work in FAME after hours.

“I really enjoyed it,” Oldham said. “There were some heartfelt stories from Rick Hall and his youth and hard times. It moved me pretty good. I cried two or three times. People seemed to like it.”

He said the 1,100-seat theater was filled and people were frequently applauding.

“It received a standing ovation,” David Hood said. “In my opinion, it was wonderful and really told the story accurately and with passion. We were told by members of the audience that it was the best documentary they had ever seen, not just this year, but ever. It was held at the largest venue and was completely sold out.”

The documentary is the first for Greg “Freddy” Camalier, a former commercial real estate agent from Boulder, Colo.

The film was produced by Camalier’s childhood friend, Stephen Badger.

He and Badger found the Shoals partly by accident and were so taken by what they discovered that they returned to spend nearly three years shooting footage for the documentary.

The film’s cinematographer, Anthony Arendt, was the cinematographer for the blockbuster 2009 film “Avatar” and the 2011 film “Larry Crowne” which starred Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.

Rodney Hall, Rick Hall’s son and president of FAME Music Publishing, said Arend, worked on the film “for the love of the music.”

“It’s going to do more for Muscle Shoals music and tourism in the area than anything that’s happened since Wilson Dam,” he said.

Hall said plans are in the works to bring the film to the Shoals to be shown as a fundraiser for the financially strapped Alabama Music Hall of Fame, which is currently closed.

Rodney Hall said that could happen within the next six weeks.

“Hopefully we can do several showings,” he said.

Johnson said all the proceeds would go to the hall of fame.

Florence resident John Paul White, one half of the Grammy-winning folk/Americana duo The Civil Wars, attended the premiere and performed during the BMI Snowball, a concert featuring Penn, Oldham and soul legend and Leighton native Percy Sledge.

White said the film was “incredibly powerful.”

“Sitting with the subjects of the film, my heroes, I was literally teary eyed through the first half,” White said. “I cannot wait for the world to become enlightened about our little town and its contributions. The Shoals has been memorialized in a way we can all be proud.”

Rodney Hall said the group from Muscle Shoals sat in the same row and many were seen dabbing tears from their eyes during the film.

“It was really far beyond what anybody could have imagined,” he said.

One drawback was the individuals who were left out of the film.

“Muscle Shoals is such a large story, a 50-year story. There were a few people that weren’t featured that probably should have been,” Hall said. “That’s the one thing that makes me a little sad.”

Oldham said Penn commented that there could have been “a little more Penn and Oldham stuff.”

“It’s a lot of territory to cover,” Oldham said. “They covered us in a good way. I’m happy about it.”

Rick Hall said there were people from Muscle Shoals who came to Utah to watch the premiere.

“I think people will be just blown away by it,” he said. “I think it will bring a lot of new business to the music arena in Muscle Shoals.”

David Hood’s wife, Judy, said “Muscle Shoals” received high praise from critics who saw the documentary before the local residents and festival attendees.

“These are amazing filmmakers, and the documentary is one of the most talked about at the festival,” she said. “Great to see the hard-working musicians from Muscle Shoals finally getting their props. This is going to be a pivotal point for the music industry and the tourism industry. A lot of folks out here have Muscle Shoals fever and are planning trips to northwest Alabama. Stephen and Freddie understand the magic of the area and of the music. This has been a spiritual journey for them and that is reflected in their work.”

The website Film School Rejects ( gave the documentary a B+.

On the upside, “Muscle Shoals” was an interesting look into a little known town that had a huge impact on music, with compelling interviews from some of music’s most influential and prominent artists.

The only downside cited by the website was the film’s length, which is 111 minutes.

* Russ Corey reports for the TimesDaily in Florence, Ala.


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