The strangest thing about this movie, which covers the 1972 concert of the same name put on in Los Angeles by Stax Records on the seventh anniversary of the Watts riots, isn’t that I’d never heard of it before it was rereleased in 2004. It’s that it seems that nobody had. I looked it up in a bunch of rock histories and record guides, and despite an attendance of 100,000 people, a movie and two soundtrack albums, I didn’t find a single mention of it.
Now, I’d never go so far as to say that nobody anywhere ever discussed the event; I only looked through my own smallish library. But for there to be NOTHING, not even a one-line reference or footnote in, for instance, The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock & Roll’s section on Stax or the chapter on soul music in Robert Palmer’s Rock And Roll: An Unruly History? No entry for either of the two soundtracks in, among other record guides, the 1992 edition of the All-Music Guide, back when it was a ludicrously overstuffed book rather than an indispensable website? If a search on his website is to be believed, even Dean of Rock Critics Robert Christgau didn’t mention it until… 2004, on the occasion of the rerelease. This is peculiar, to say the least.
True, Woodstock (to which Wattstax was, perhaps obviously, viewed as an African-American analogue) boasted an audience five times as large, and Stax was on the decline in both cultural impact and sales by then. But the Staple Singers, who performed very nearly at the start of the concert, were smack in the middle of their run of nine Top 40 hits (and between two chart-toppers, 1972′s “I’ll Take You There” and 1975′s “Let’s Do It Again”), and closer Isaac Hayes had won an Oscar for “Theme From Shaft” less than two years earlier. That’s two large acts at the height of their powers, bookending a concert that seemed to vanish from the historical record. As I said, peculiar.
The movie itself is a curious, sometimes frustrating, sometimes delirious amalgam. Rather than a straight concert film or even (like Woodstock) an attempt to chronicle the event as a whole, it intercuts the music with a series of man-on-the-street interviews. Actually, “interviews” might be pushing it; many of the folks we meet show up in small groups of friends involved in what seem like conversations on civil rights and black culture that they’ve been having since well before the cameras ever showed up.
Director Mel Stuart (yes, the same Mel Stuart who made Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory) constantly toggles back and forth between these conversations and the music. The aim is to connect the concerns of members of the community with the songs themselves, and one result is that Wattstax is far more political for even having these discussions in the first place than, say, Woodstock. But while there’s a bit of the intended cross-illumination, it prevents both the conversation and the concert from picking up the momentum they’d generate had each gotten its own movie.
But, to quote Footloose, I thought this was a party! None of the performances in Wattstax are worse than good, and some are spectacular. Curiously, the two biggest stars fall into the former category. Neither the Staple Singers nor Hayes are bad at all, but they just don’t pop. Hayes in particular has no excuse, arriving as if borne on a golden chariot, bedecked in gold chains instead of a shirt, and performing “Theme From Shaft” so woodenly that all the excitement (and there is plenty of excitement, don’t worry) comes from the stadium full of people going berserk. (Caution: In discussing Shaft, Shaft-appropriate language is used.)
Earlier, in fact, the Bar-Kays showed how it’s done with “Son Of Shaft,” turning what should have been a cheap, house-band knockoff of a massive hit into a raucous, screaming jam. On the other end of the style spectrum are the Emotions, singing “Peace Be Still” from what sound like the pits of their guts in a storefront church, one of a handful of offsite performances included in the film. The Rance Allen Group‘s “Lying On The Truth” falls somewhere between the two, gospel righteousness mixed with soulful funk. I can’t understand why this movie was overlooked for so long.
“WATTSTAX” 1973 directed by Mel Stuart
screening 8pm 8.20.11 @ the BILLY WILDER THEATER, L.A..!