#631) Wattstax (1973)

#631) Wattstax (1973)

OR “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”

Directed by Mel Stuart

Class of 2020

The Plot: On August 20th, 1972, almost exactly seven years after the riots in the Black neighborhood of Watts, the largest civil unrest in Los Angeles up to that time, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum hosted a one-time concert to celebrate the community’s regrowth. Presented by Stax Records, Wattstax featured over 30 Black artists from the record’s label, including the Staple Singers, Kim Weston, Jimmy Jones, Rance Allen, The Bar-Kays, Albert King, Rufus Thomas, Luther Ingram, and Isaac Hayes. The concert was filmed for this documentary, as were candid conversations with Watts residents, additional performances by such Stax artists as The Emotions and Little Milton, and running commentary from comedian Richard Pryor.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “more than simply a great concert film”, praising the “dazzling music highlights”, the “incisive comments from people on the Watts streets”, and the “Shakespearean musing” of Richard Pryor. There’s also an essay by Al Bell, former Stax Records Chairman and executive producer on “Wattstax”.

But Does It Really?: I’m always pleasantly surprised when a concert movie on this list goes beyond the performances and tells me about the community and the culture, and “Wattstax” succeeds on this front. While the ratio of concert performances to “the other stuff” is more evenly split than most concert docs, I finished “Wattstax” with a better understanding of a specific time and place in American history. Most documentaries about historical events spend little time on how those events permanently changed a community, but “Wattstax” focuses solely on that aftermath, showing a neighborhood that is not only surviving, but thriving. Plus, you can never go wrong with a soundtrack that good. A pass for NFR inclusion for “Wattstax”.

Shout Outs: One of the best shout-outs to another NFR film this blog has ever encountered: Isaac Hayes opens his set with “Theme from ‘Shaft’“. Damn right.

Every Record Company Gets One: Founded in 1957 by siblings Jim Steward and Estelle Axton, Stax Records differentiated itself in the recording industry by not only including an ethnically diverse roster of artists, but also an equally diverse production team. Based in Memphis, Stax was picked up by Atlantic Records for national distribution, helping them become a serious competitor with Motown. By the early 1970s, Stax found itself on shaky financial ground after being dropped by Atlantic. The Wattstax concert was conceived by Stax’s West coast director Forrest Hamilton, who had been in Watts during the riots and thought an all-star benefit concert could help support a good cause while simultaneously giving the label a much needed boost.

Wow, That’s Dated: Obvious racial issues aside, we have another installment of “We Suck at Inflation” and its spin-off “We Suck at Not Price Gouging”. To ensure a large attendance, tickets for Wattstax were sold for $1 apiece, which is about $7 in today’s money. If that concert was today, $7 would be the smallest of Ticketmaster’s multiple surcharges and the whole thing would be sold out online within seconds, leading to scalping and the sort of classism this kind of event was designed to avoid. Whoo, got a little lightheaded there. Where were we?

Seriously, Oscars?: No Oscar nod for “Wattstax”, though the film was nominated in the Golden Globes’ short-lived Documentary category, losing to “Visions of Eight“, an anthology film chronicling the ’72 Olympics (Coincidentally, “Visions” and “Wattstax” were both produced by David Wolper). For the record: the Oscars gave their Best Documentary award to “The Great American Cowboy”, a film about rodeos.

Other notes 

  • Like Stax, “Wattstax” was notable for its behind-the-scenes integration. Of its four producers, two were White (David Wolper and Mel Stuart) and two were Black (Al Bell and Larry Shaw). Although Mel Stuart is the sole credited director, Stax’s VP of Publicity Larry Shaw helped co-direct and guide the final film. At the insistence of Stax, 90% of the film crew (as well as a majority of the security team at the Los Angels Memorial Coliseum) were Black. This experience allowed several of the Black crew-members to join Hollywood’s traditionally closed-off unions.
  • Fun Fact: “Wattstax” director Mel Stuart helmed “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” two years earlier. While it may seem that “Wattstax” is the outlier in Stuart’s filmography, it’s actually “Wonka”. Stuart’s film career was primarily in documentaries.
  • Among the people interviewed throughout the film is Ted Lange, five years away from his breakthrough role as Isaac your bartender on “The Love Boat”. Lange was primarily a stage actor whose film career was just getting started when he appeared in “Wattstax”.
  • For the curious, I counted four White people in attendance at Wattstax (not counting staff or people in scenes outside of the concert).
  • “Wattstax” obviously pairs well with fellow NFR film “Felicia“, the documentary that was filmed in Watts shortly before the 1965 riots. Together, these two films paint a refreshingly optimistic portrait of the neighborhood.
  • The concert gets going with the “National Anthem” (in which the audience remains seated, at least according to this edit). The mood quickly livens up when Reverend Jesse Jackson takes the stage to perform his poem “I am Somebody”, followed by Kim Weston’s rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (aka the “Black National Anthem”). I actually started tearing up at this. It was thrilling to watch a community so fully embrace a performance.
  • One of the first performances outside of the concert comes from singing group The Emotions. Before their larger success in the disco era, The Emotions were on Stax’s label, and are seen here performing “Peace Be Still” in a local church. Man, if more R&B groups performed at my church I would have paid a lot more attention.
  • Shoutout to The Staple Singers, who now make two appearances on the NFR (they also perform in “The Last Waltz“). They’re tied with Jean Harlow!
  • My sympathy to the Bar-Kays, who perform their entire set with the setting sun directly in their eyes. They must have picked the short straw.
  • Little Milton performs his song “Walking the Back Streets and Crying” at a train station near Watts Towers in front of a literal garbage fire. Who did he piss off?
  • As a White male I am, of course, grossly unqualified to discuss any of the complex issues presented in this film regarding Black life in America. As someone who has previously dated a few Black women, however, I can confirm that the quote “A Black woman is always two steps ahead of her man” is 100% accurate.
  • Rufus Thomas has one of the film’s most memorable sets, in which he encourages the crowd to come out onto the football field and “Do The Funky Chicken”, only to learn that the audience is not allowed on the field and quickly encourages the crowd to go back into the stands. Also, with his matching pink suit, shorts, and cape – as well as his white mid-calf boots – Thomas gets my vote for Best Dressed.
  • Also notable during Thomas’ set: two men in the crowd doing what I’m pretty sure is the Rerun dance from “What’s Happening!!” Fred Berry is listed as an uncredited dancing man in the “Wattstax” IMDb page, but I couldn’t find any other source that could confirm this.
  • Richard Pryor’s commentary throughout is essentially his various stand-up routines on race relations in America presented as if he’s speaking off-the-cuff at a bar. True to Pryor’s comedy stylings, there’s a lot of really funny material, none of which I feel comfortable quoting here.
  • As the sun sets on the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, things start getting sexy with Luther Ingram’s “(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right”. It’s a soulful, tantalizing live performance, even if I will forever associate that song with “A Very Brady Sequel“.
  • And then we get to the man himself, Isaac Hayes. 1972 was a great year for Hayes’ career, having won two Grammys and an Oscar for his work on “Shaft” a few months before headlining Wattstax. You are watching a man at the peak of his career. And on top of everything, the Wattstax concert was on Hayes’ 30th birthday!
  • Side note about Isaac Hayes’ performance: Prior to the film’s release, Stax was sued by MGM for Hayes’ performances of “Theme from ‘Shaft'” and “Soulsville”, which both appeared in “Shaft” and therefore exclusively owned by MGM for the next five years. While both songs were allowed to be seen in the film’s premiere, the general release version features Hayes singing “Rolling Down a Mountainside“, which he shot after the concert for the film.

Legacy 

  • Over 112,000 people attended the Wattstax concert, making it one of the largest gatherings of African-Americans in history (second only to the 1963 March on Washington).
  • While Wattstax the concert was a success, “Wattstax” the film didn’t fare as well. Despite its Golden Globe nomination and screening at Cannes, “Wattstax” didn’t receive a wide theatrical release, only gaining a small cult following from subsequent TV and home video releases. The film’s initial disappointment, mixed with several mismanagement issues, led to Stax declaring bankruptcy in 1975. Currently, the Stax records catalog is owned by Concord Relations, who have revived the brand for reissues as well as new releases by their R&B artists.
  • “Wattstax” starting getting rediscovered and reappraised following the film’s 30th anniversary restoration in 2003, with Isaac Hayes’ original performances intact. This restored version played the Sundance Film Festival, and a companion documentary about the concert aired on PBS, helping revive interest in both concert and movie.
  • According to Al Bell, it was co-producer David Wolper’s experience with the predominantly Black creatives of “Wattstax” that inspired him to produce “Roots”, the 1977 TV miniseries that is still a benchmark in Black representation in pop culture.

Listen to This: The only “Wattstax” artists featured on the National Recording Registry are The Staple Singers, Albert King, and Isaac Hayes. Bonus shoutout: The Bar-Kays are sampled on De La Soul’s album “3 Feet High and Rising“. The NRR also includes recordings of “Life Every Voice and Sing” via two recordings by, respectively, Manhattan Harmony Four and Melba Moore and Friends.

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