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Soul Sensations: 7 Films to Watch This Week

Eta James records a session with the "Fame Gang" at the original Muscle Shoals, Fame Studios.

Anyone who's ever been out on a Friday night knows that Soul Music is a big deal in San Francisco. Despite the fact (or perhaps because of it) that most of its major canon was recorded over 40 years ago, on any given night in the city you can hear all varieties of soul, from girl groups to boogaloo, from slow jams all the way to jitter-inducing Northern Soul.

As legend has it, the music's appeal is all about the grit, that magical something that happens between when a song is written and when it's pressed to a record. Freddy Camalier's new documentary takes viewers direct to the source of more than a bit of that magic, a swamp-locked town in Alabama called Muscle Shoals.

Muscle Shoals may have less casual recognition than other classic studios like Stax and Motown, but in creating the "soul" sound and later laying the foundations for Southern Rock, as well as turning out number-one records, it's got a pretty hard rep to beat. SF soul scene veteran DJ Primo (of Slow Jams, Oldies Night, etc) broke it down when I asked him to spill on the legendary studio:

"When someone asks for "Soul Music" it's often the Muscle Shoals sound they are talking about. Muscle Shoals recording studio, along with Rick Hall's FAME label are emblematic for the warm and gritty vibe that in my personal experience at least often will elucidate the "that's what I'm talking about" reaction from someone asking to hear something soulful. The studio and its players have given rise to more an impressive roster of hits including Arthur Alexander's "You Better Move On,"  Etta James' "I'd Rather Go Blind," Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman," 'Steal Away' by Jimmy Hughes... and the list goes on. Tons of the rare 45's modern soul DJs play bear the Fame imprint. A favorite of mine of the more obscure variety is "Keep on Talking" by James Barnett, which has more of a big city sophistication but still crunches along with the country swagger I associate with Muscle Shoals."

For his part, Camalier plays it straight, laying out the storied history of Rick Hall and his Fame Studio, and his legendary back-up band The Swampers, a gang of white country boys who played the "black man's music" as good as anyone and who left to create their own studio, Muscle Shoals, which went on to cut some of the most well-loved rock records of all time, by artists like Paul Simon, Rod Steward and Bob Dylan. Such great history writes itself--naturally with a little help of some of the early artists who recorded there and still see it as hallowed ground including Keith Richards, Jimmy Cliff, Eta James, Percy Sledge, Sam Philips of Sun Records, and on and on to infinity. A treat for even for the most jaded historian, Muscle Shoals truly has soul. Rotten Tomatoes: 94% Opera Plaza.

ALSO PLAYING:

Escape From Tomorrow -  First time director Randy Moore caused a Sundance sensation with his surreal, sinister debut--a vacation nightmare set on location at real-life Disney World. Q & A with Randy Moore on Sunday. Rotten Tomatoes: 64%. Roxie. 

SF Shorts - Roxie hosts this annual, immaculately curated mini-fest of over 50 shorts, organized into 8 programs. Every one is a winner. Oct 10-12, Roxie.

Learn Your Lesson ...To Death Just in time for Halloween, Oddball rolls out a program packed with hoary educational "shockumentaries," including Dead Is Dead, a truly horrifying chronicle of heroin withdrawl produced by oft-forgotten underground comic Godfrey Cambridge. Oddball Film+Video, Friday Oct 11 only.

A.C.O.D. - Adam Scott ("Party Down") stars in this engaging, if a bit disjointed, comedy about an Adult Child of Divorce who finds his whole life has been a big case study. Will likely appeal to fans of ...Party Down. Rotten Tomatoes: 53%. Metreon.

The Summit - This hybrid doc about the disastrous 2008 climb of one of the world's most treacherous peaks, K2, manages to covey something very rare: the real feeling of being on the mountain. Rotten Tomatoes: 74%. Century 9.

Machete Kills - A god to some, a bane to others, Robert Rodriguez (Desperado) disappoints as often as he wows audiences. Unfortunately this one is an instance of the first case. Only teenage boys need apply. Rotten Tomatoes: 36%. AMC Van Ness.