FLORENCE — Anthony Arendt wasn’t terribly familiar with how a small Alabama town produced so many hit records in the 1960s and ’70s, but after working on the “Muscle Shoals” documentary for just a short time, he fell in love with the story.
Arendt, the virtual cameraman for the hit science fiction film “Avatar,” was the cinematographer for the documentary directed by Greg Camalier about the rise of the Muscle Shoals music scene.
On Wednesday, he and several hundred music fans and musicians attended the Shoals premiere of the documentary at the Marriott Shoals Conference Center.
“I feel really blessed to be a part of this project,” Arendt said. “After the first six or seven months, I realized how invested in it I was.”
Arendt said he spent about 3½ years shooting footage for the film. The time allowed him to become immersed in the roots of Muscle Shoals music, how it was made and the people who made it.
“It was unbelievable,” he said. “I’m very, very happy with the way it came out.”
Arendt said he arranged his schedule so he could spend as much time as possible on the project.
The movie focused on how a young man from Freedom Hills in Franklin County — Rick Hall — created FAME Recording Studios and started making hit records in the little town of Muscle Shoals.
The film also followed the members of “The Swampers,” a group of Hall’s studio musicians, as they set out on their own to create Muscle Shoals Sound Recording Studios, which recorded its share of hit records in the early 1970s.
The consensus among those who saw the film was that it was an educational experience, even to those who were familiar about the early days of the Muscle Shoals music scene.
“Actually, I was surprised,” studio engineer Don Srygley said. “From what I know, everything was pretty much on the spot.
Russell Mefford, guitarist and vocalist for the Shoals band The Fiddleworms, said he was “blown away” by the film.
Mefford, who was born and raised in Florence, said he learned 100 times more than what he thought he knew about the early days.
“You hear stories about how things went down,” Mefford said. “This delved into the backgrounds of the people and how it worked around here.”
Brittany Howard, lead singer and guitarist for the Athens-based Alabama Shakes, said the film was inspiring.
“I’m more inspired to sing after seeing all those things that happened in my backyard,” said Howard, who was a performer at the all-star concert that followed the film. “It’s not easy to grow up in north Alabama and do all that.”
She was especially inspired about how Hall worked his way up to become an important player in the evolution of American music.
“I thought it was awesome,” said Sabrina Eaton, of Sheffield. “It shows the culture of where we come from. It made me more proud to be from here.”
River Jones, of Florence, said “Muscle Shoals” was fantastic.
“It feels like a beautiful musical stew,” Jones said.
David MacKay, who grew up around the San Francisco music scene and has since immersed himself in the Shoals music scene, said the film left him speechless.
“It’s the most soulful American history lesson I’ve ever had,” MacKay said. “It’s not about facts — it’s about the hearts and souls of the people. To listen to this, it just speaks to who dug the well we’re all drinking from today. It was very humbling.”
MacKay said he could see parallels between the early days of the San Francisco music scene, which gave birth to bands such as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.
“They were all exploring something very vital in American music as well,” he said, adding that a lot of the early San Francisco musicians were fans of the Muscle Shoals sound.
Former Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Ed King used an obscure musical reference to describe just how big the “Muscle Shoals” documentary is.
“I think it’s historic,” said King, who created the unmistakable guitar intro to Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” “It’s huge. It’s bigger than anything that happened in San Francisco. It’s a down home version of the Brill Building.”
The Brill Building in New York City was the home of numerous music industry offices and recording studios that produced some of the most popular American music. It’s been described as the most important generator of popular songs in the Western world.
King spent time in the Shoals in the early ’70s recording with Lynyrd Skynyrd and to this day remains in awe of Muscle Shoals Sound Recording Studios.
He recalled how awestruck he was the first time he walked in the nondescript building at 3614 Jackson Highway.
“I would just stand there and look around,” King said. “When I come to town, I will pull into the parking lot and just watch.”
Rodney Hall, president of FAME Music Publishing, said about 800 people attended the premiere.
“I think it will shine a spotlight on Muscle Shoals,” said Jimmy Nutt, owner of The NuttHouse Recording Studio in downtown Sheffield.
Nutt said he thinks the attention could spill over and have a positive impact on Shoals musicians who are carrying on the tradition of today’s Muscle Shoals music.
“I think it will help people discover what’s going on now,” he said. “Anything that gets attention and shines a light on us is good. “The movie tells what made us famous to begin with.”
N.C. Thurman, a Shoals studio musician and keyboardist for The Decoys, said he loved the film.
“I thought it was great,” Thurman said. “Mr. Rick Hall lived to see his story told.”
The post-show concert featured well-known Shoals artists and guests including King, Howard, Christine Ohlman, the “Beehive Queen” from the Saturday Night Live Band and former Grateful Dead vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux MacKay.
The band was led by Florence’s John Paul White, one half of the Grammy Award winning duo The Civil Wars.
In addition to bringing the film to the area that inspired it, Rodney Hall said the premiere of “Muscle Shoals” was used to help raise money for the Southern Music Foundation, a new nonprofit organization formed to promote and preserve the history and legacy of southern music.
A portion of the revenue will be used to retire outstanding debt at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, such as delinquent utility bills and money owed to former employees. The facility closed around Christmas and has not reopened. The utilities have been shut off.
Money raised also will be used to kickstart a new exhibit focusing on the Muscle Shoals sound. The exhibit still is in the planning stages.
Those who were unable to attend Wednesday’s premiere can see “Muscle Shoals” on Friday at the University of North Alabama’s Norton Auditorium.
Tickets for the UNA screening are $20. For information about Friday’s screening, call 256-765-4592 or email email@example.com.
Russ Corey can be reached at 256-740-5738 or russ.corey@TimesDaily.com.
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