Movie Review: Wattstax


The documentary film of the 1972 concert Wattstax (1973) was re-released in a special edition a few years ago, but I didn’t get a chance to see it then. Spurred by my recent trip to Los Angeles and a review of a PBS documentary on Stax Records, I decided to request this DVD from the library. I was not disappointed. The film is a powerful social document of Black Pride in America in the 1970’s and captures some amazing musical performances.

For the uninitiated, Wattstax was a music festival in August 1972 featuring some of the top recording artists of Stax Records to commemorate the 7th anniversary of the Watts riots. I had imagined it as a street festival (and there was a parade and festival in Watts) but the actual concert took place in Los Angeles Coliseum. With over 100,000 people in attendance, the event has been called “the Black Woodstock,” and the name and logo of Wattstax plays on the comparison. The crowd includes many older people, children, the nattily dressed, and ordinary looking folk, and as far as I can tell every single person in attendance was black. I can’t imagine an event like this happening today when even the most militant rap act will attract a large crowd of suburban white kids. This may be a good thing, reflecting an easing of racial tensions in the US, but on the other hand the Black Pride movement seems incomplete.

Surprisingly, the vast majority of this film is not concert footage. A good portion of the introduction and between sets is dedicated to on the street interviews in Watts and shots of urban street scenes. The people interviewed talk about the riots (which are viewed as bringing about positive change), religion, unemployment, crime, identity, men and women, and adultery. These interviews are tied in thematically with musical performances so that gospel numbers surround the religion discussion and the discussion of adultery precedes Luther Ingram singing “If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don’t Want to be Right.” These interviews by Richard Pryor telling funny stories to a group of people off camera while in a club.

Even some of the musical performances don’t take place at the Coliseum. The Emotions sing “Peace Be Still” in a church. In a segment resembling a (very good and effective) music video Little Milton plays “Walking the Backstreet and Crying” while sitting in a derelict urban setting by a burning trash barrel. Another scene is set in a club where customers in stereotypical pimp outfits watch Johnnie Taylor sing “Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone.”

The actual concert begins with the National Anthem while the camera pointedly scans the audience to show that no one stands. Jesse Jackson takes the mic and inspires crowd and leads them in a call & response recitation of his poem “I Am Somebody.” Then he introduces the Black National Anthem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” performed by Kim Weston. I didn’t even know there was a Black National Anthem, but it’s good to learn new things. During the performance the audience stands with fists raised and images from civil rights history are displayed. Very powerful stuff.

The concert is full of great performances by The Staple Singers, The Bar-Kays, Albert King, Carla Thomas with the most beautiful smile, Rufus Thomas, and the show-stopping finale by Isaac Hayes. I’ll have to confess once again that I had no idea how great a performer he is and how popular he was in 1972, but damn he put on a good show. Another thing I never knew is that a great number of the spoken words by Jesse Jackson and the performing artists have been sampled on other recordings. This is particularly true of It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back by Public Enemy, one of my all-time favorite albums. Now I finally know where “Brothers and sisters, I don’t know what this world is coming to!” and “Freedom is a road seldom traveled by the multitude” came from and heard them in context.

This is a great film that documents a place and time, and as an added bonus contains some kickass music.  Do yourself a favor and check it out.

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