Wattstax: The Special Edition

Wattstax: The Special Edition
In August 1972, Stax Records staged its most ambitious project ever: a huge concert at the Los Angeles Coliseum marking the end of that year's Watts Summer Festival. With tickets priced at one dollar each, 112,000 people showed up. Its ambition and scope caused many to dub it the "Black Woodstock." This event was an amazing confluence of Afro-American pride, a celebration/dissertation on living in Watts and a day of incredible music. It was also a gambit for Stax, riding high on Isaac Hayes's success with Shaft, to move into films, showcase their roster, and partner with Schlitz Beer to reinforce their status as the fifth biggest Black-owned business in America, at the time. A seemingly odd choice was director Mel Stuart who, despite his acclaim as the director of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, was primarily a documentarian. He made much more than a concert movie. He notes in his commentary that he was the only white person on the creative team, and that he felt that the context surrounding the concert was as important as the music, both for the audience's perspective and his own. Almost half the movie is devoted to interviews with Watts residents in barbershops, restaurants and in the street. Topics range from poverty, gender relations, the blues, religion and pride, and each song in the movie lyrically relates to each topic; some more successfully than others. As a central chorus, a pre-stardom Richard Pryor riffs on these subjects, getting more scabrous and hilarious as the film wears on. This film is a time capsule and should be judged as such — you'll find yourself questioning certain attitudes that were acceptable in 1972, while realising certain things haven't changed. As for the music, there are at least a half-dozen killer spots. Indeed, the performances are better than the increasingly overproduced records that Stax was releasing at the time. Some deserve special mention: the Emotions in a local church, Rufus Thomas with the funkiest crowd control ever captured on film, and Isaac Hayes revelling in his own bad self in the restored ending of "Shaft" and "Soulsville". Plus: original ending, extended performances, Chuck D and Rob Bowman featurette, more. (Warner) David Dacks