Backbeat: Sounds of Southern Soul Invade Sundance

Above, Fame Studios' Rick Hall, left, and "Muscle Shoals" producer Stephen Badger celebrate at BMI's SnowBall (Photo: Phil Gallo)

On a drive using back roads from New York to New Mexico, Greg Camalier and his traveling companion came to a fork and needed to make a decision about which musical birthplace they would visit. Elvis Presley's hometown of Tupelo, Miss., lost out to Muscle Shoals, Ala., home of Rick Hall's Fame Studio where soul music and Southern rock were birthed.

"We drove 40 miles in the wrong direction to spend the night," Camalier told Billboard."That next 24 hours was a life-changing day. We got a sense of this place, started to talk to people there and started to do research. We couldn't believe how much great music came from there that we didn't realize was from there."

Captivated by the people, the stories and the "good energy" of the environs, that May 2008 was the start of an odyssey that ends with Saturday's world premiere of "Muscle Shoals," the first film project for Camalier and producer Stephen Badger.

Like Dave Grohl's documentary on the Sound City studio in Van Nuys, Calif., the music is far more famous than the studio. Rick Hall opened Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., in 1963 and, with a crew of white musicians, produced records that helped define soul music in the 1960s. Jimmy Hughes and Arthur Alexander, whose work was covered by the Beatles and Rolling Stones, had hits out of the gate. Aretha Franklin's "When a Man Loves a Woman" and Wilson Pickett's hits put Fame on the map and, as the city exploded with other studios, the city played host to Bob Dylan, Traffic, the Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Jimmy Cliff when he was recording "Sitting in Limbo."

From L-R: Trumpeter Terence Blanchard, pianist Spooner Oldham, Dan Penn and John Paul White deliver a rousing version of the Beatles' "Hey Jude," which Wilson Pickett recorded at Fame Studios (Photo: Randall Michaelson)

Central to "Muscle Shoals" is Hall's tragedy-filled life away from the studio and the studio musicians who broke away from Fame to form their own (years later rejoining the Fame family). Inside the walls of Fame in the 1960s, the local musicians and the national stars say, the racial issues that made the American South an ugly place at the time were non-existent. Those studios were isolated rooms of harmony.

That element, Camalier says, "is a compelling story that's unique. I was trying to make a music documentary that was more than a music documentary. It's a human story, as well about a sense of place."

Wednesday night, Percy Sledge, Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, the Civil Wars' John Paul White and trumpeter Terence Blanchard paid tribute to Muscle Shoals at BMI's SnowBall, with Hall in attendance. The musicians went beyond the hits to shine a light on the town's history: Sledge sang his signature "When a Man Loves a Woman"; Penn and Oldham did their own "I'm Your Puppet" and covered Arthur Alexander's "You Better Move On"; White covered songs from lesser-known songwriters associated with the city, Blanchard paid tribute to Muscle Shoals native W.C. Handy and the ensemble banged out "Hey Jude," Wilson Pickett-style.

White, a native of nearby Florence, Ala., says the recording scene in Muscle Shoals is as vibrant as ever, though the emphasis tends to be on bands -- the Black Keys, for example -- rather than records.

"You've got that feeling, that electricity, that there was in the '60s and '70s," says White, who appears in the film along with Bono, Keith Richards, Aretha Franklin and Gregg Allman. "I think a lot of people lose site of this: what put us on the map was records being cut with those players. Then they went through a phase where it was about writing songs.

"Muscle Shoals" director Greg Camalier parties at the BMI SnowBall with his fiance (Photo: Phil Gallo)

"There are people who want to talk about what the Shoals was and how it can happen again. Well it's not going to happen, because that was the era of the big studios and big budgets and artists would come in and stay for two months. Now the Black Keys come in and a couple days later it's done and they're gone. It's just a different way of being vital."

After the BMI performance, the musicians, Hall and the creative team behind the film retired to a private dinner. The toasts were multiple, starting with musicians thanking Hall and each other for opportunities. Perseverance was the theme, and Baker and Camalier were given a round of applause for finishing a project that countless others had proposed to Hall over the last 30-odd years, but never completed.

The film has yet to be sold and has no distributor, a victim, some say, of its position at the back end of the schedule. The creative team had no such concerns. "Being at Sundance is all that matters," Camalier says. "We have a nice big theater and couldn't ask for more."