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Wattstax

Posted by martinteller on May 3, 2013

On August 20th, 1972, Stax Records put on a show in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to commemorate the 7th anniversary of the Watts riots.  Although it may seem odd to memorialize an incident that was marked by a lot of senseless death and destruction, the event was considered a turning point in the Black Power movement.

Directed by Mel Stuart (whose previous credits include Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, of all things), the film intersperses concert footage with “man on the street” interviews about the black experience in America, covering topics ranging from economic factors to gender roles to religion to hairstyles.  Other clips show Richard Pryor holding court in a nightclub, casually riffing about similar issues (in generally hilarious fashion).  There is the occasional montage of famous African-American figures, the riots, or street life in contemporary Watts.  Jesse Jackson introduces the show with some rousing oratory.  In all, it serves as a pretty interesting portrait of black culture in that place and time.

Unfortunately, the music is another matter.  Stax was on the way out at the time.  Their heyday was over and they were having problems keeping up with the times.  In fact, they’d be out of business a few years later.  Otis Redding was dead, Sam & Dave had moved on, Booker T. and the MG’s had broken up.  Some of the premier acts from Stax’s golden age do appear in the show, however.  Carla Thomas does a great “Pick Up the Pieces”, and her father Rufus is one of the highlights, performing two fantastic songs, “Breakdown” and “Do the Funky Chicken” (his stage banter is a delight as well, poking fun at an audience member making a fool of himself on the field).  I’m not a huge fan of the blues, but the tunes by Albert King and Johnnie Taylor are not bad.  On the other hand, the once-mighty Bar-Kays do a rather uninspired “Son of Shaft” knockoff.

Heavy-hitters from their more current roster include The Dramatics, The Staple Singers and the show’s closer, Isaac Hayes.  Hayes comes out with a blistering “Theme from Shaft” (of course) but ends with an anticlimactic “Soulsville”.  The Dramatics open the film with a great song, “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get”… an ironic choice considering we never actually see them.  I also liked Mel and Tim’s “I May Not Be What You Want”.  The rest of the acts are rather forgettable.  It’s definitely a mixed bag.  Stuart often cuts off a song in the middle to jump to another Pryor bit or interview clip, but in most cases he does this to the weaker songs, so it’s hard to complain about it.

One of the most prominent interviewees looked mighty familiar, but it took me a while to place him.  It was Ted Lange, who would later be in the core cast of “The Love Boat” (at the time, his only credit was “Melvin the Pimp” in Trick Baby).  You can also spot the great Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee in an audience shot.

I wish I’d enjoyed more of the music acts, but there are enough highlights to justify the time spent.  If you’re a fan of 70’s-era Stax you may get more out of it than I did, but either way the other material in the film is quite interesting and entertaining.  Rating: Good (72)

IMDb
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4 Responses to “Wattstax”

  1. JamDenTel said

    Just FYI, TRICK BABY is a really underrated entry in the blaxploitation genre. A really compelling little film.

  2. Gabriel said

    Stellar review. I just finished watching it and I felt the same. It was a very vibrant, rich experience. My only quibble is why not mention the regal, majestic voice of Kim Weston singing the National Anthem and Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing? Those were major highlights. Just watching that made me think about all the people who had passed in the previous decade: Dr. King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Sam Cooke, Tammi Terrell, Otis Redding, Fred Hampton, Langston Hughes, Bobby Hutton and Meredith Hunter. It really is a stunning time capsule that demands wider recognition.

    • Thank you for commenting! To be honest, I don’t remember Kim Weston… which may be an indicator of why I didn’t mention her in the first place. Different things resonate with different people, of course. And the film has faded from memory quite a bit.

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