The legendary “black Woodstock” finally gets its due when a newly restored and digitally remixed Wattstax , Mel Stuart’s documentary of the epochal 1972 concert at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, receives its first-ever national broadcast. Featuring incendiary performances by Isaac Hayes, Albert King, Rufus and Carla Thomas, the Staple Singers, the Emotions, the Bar-Kays, and other greats of soul, R&B, and gospel— plus biting humor from a then little-known Richard Pryor — Wattstax is more than a concert film. It also captures a heady moment in mid-1970s, “black-is-beautiful” African-American culture, when Los Angeles’s black community came together just seven years after the Watts riots to celebrate its survival and a renewed hope in its future.
(From left) Schlitz Beer Rep, Jesse Jackson and Al Bell
POV’s broadcast of Wattstax includes performances cut for legal reasons from the film’s original 1973 release — Isaac Hayes’s show-closing renditions of “Theme from Shaft” and “Soulsville.” The broadcast, a POV Classics presentation, coincides with the DVD release of Wattstax — The Special Edition, featuring bonus footage from the seven-hour concert and a remixed Dolby® 5.1 Surround-Sound track.
Staged by Stax Records, a renowned Southern soul label founded in 1959 in Memphis, the Wattstax concert drew over 100,000 predominately African-American Los Angelenos, who themselves put on an exuberant display — memorably captured by Wattstax — of ’70s funk and soul culture.
From the first, the filmmakers wanted to document more than the performances on stage. Stuart and Stax colleagues Larry Shaw and Forest Hamilton believed that filming the event alone would yield “just another concert film.” So the mostly black film crews went through the Watts neighborhood to talk with people on street corners, in barbershops, restaurants, and churches, where they also recorded gospel performances. When Stuart felt that some overall perspective, “something like the ‘chorus’ in Henry V,” was still lacking, the Stax executives led him to a small club in Watts where he filmed the relatively unknown comic Richard Pryor for two hours as he riffed from the end of a bar on the tragic-comic absurdities of race relations in Watts and the nation.
Wattstax intersperses the candid, “man-on-the-street” interviews with concert and audience footage, creating an evocative tableau of a community in transition after the devastating riots. Pryor’s trenchant musings are equal to their Shakespearean task, offering sharp insight into the realities of life for black Americans, circa 1972. This time capsule of the great comedian, on the eve of crossing over into mainstream stardom, is one of the gems of “Wattstax.” Others include the Staple Singers celebrating black music’s common roots in gospel, Hayes’s hot and flashy performance of “Theme From Shaft,” and, for a priceless comic snapshot, Rufus Thomas dancing the Funky Chicken in hot pants.
For Stax, the concert was a bold move to promote both the label and the idea of African-American economic empowerment. The show’s MC was none other than the Rev. Jesse Jackson, whose Operation Breadbasket and People United to Save Humanity — early efforts to achieve social and civil equality through economic power — had received support from Stax. The label’s VP of advertising and publicity, Larry Shaw, was considered a pioneer in creating positive ad campaigns while also providing advice to such civil-rights organizations as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Anyone who was there would never forget it. Jackson’s hosting style reveled in a fine balance between get-down entertainment, raised-fist political rally, and stand-up spiritual revival: a revealing expression of the powerful currents driving black American life and culture in the post-civil rights, Vietnam era. However, Wattstax was considered too racy, political, and black to receive wide theatrical release or a television broadcast. After a noted screening at the Cannes Film Festival and a Golden Globe nomination, “Wattstax” dropped into the status of a “seldom-seen” cult favorite.
Meanwhile, neither Stax’s entrepreneurial boldness nor a roster of stellar performers saved the company from a fast-changing music industry, and Stax went bankrupt in 1977. Nearly all of Stax’s assets, including the masters of all recordings, were acquired by Fantasy Records. The release of a restored, re-mixed and re-mastered “Wattstax” and the new DVD is a collaboration of Fantasy, Inc., and Sony Pictures Entertainment.
“‘Wattstax’ was originally conceived as a film of a concert commemorating the seventh anniversary of the Watts riots,” recalls director Mel Stuart. “Early on, we knew we didn’t want just a concert film; we wanted a deeper reflection of the black experience.
“This led to improvised interviews with dozens of men and women that touched on every facet of the African-American experience. Film crews went into the streets, churches, barber shops and diners to talk with people about the connection between music and their existence and what it was like to be black in a white America. “Richard Pryor called Wattstax ‘a soulful expression of the living word’ and I hope we captured the soul and essence of that moment in our culture.”