Wattstax (30th Anniversary Special Edition)
Warner Bros. // R // $24.98 // September 7, 2004
Review by Bill Gibron | posted September 19, 2004
DVD Talk Collector Series
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A half a million hippies get together on a farm in upstate New York and everybody's heard about it. Something shy of 700,000 show up to a tiny island in the UK and it's a monumental musical event. But when 100,000 people of color packed the LA Coliseum to commemorate one of the worst episodes of urban unrest in that South Central Los Angeles community's history, it's not even a minor footnote in the pantheon of concert celebrations. The riots/"rebellion" in Watts during the summer of 1965 marked a turning point for the African American experience in America, a shift from civil disobedience to radical opposition. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a little over a year old, and white America assumed it had assuaged the anger of the minority factions. But on a hot summer's day in August, a routine traffic stop swelled into a six-day whirlwind of devastation, with thousands injured and 34 people ending up dead. After the looting and destruction, the political pontification, placation and patronization, Watts was left to more or less fend for itself. Seven years after those horrible, unsettling events, preeminent soul music label Stax Records decided to put on a concert to commemorate the continued struggle for hope and healing (as part of the community's already in place pro-Watts festivities). Featuring The Staples Singers, The Bar-Kays, Rufus Thomas and headliner Isaac Hayes, Wattstax was a musical and cultural celebration for the disenfranchised and poverty-stricken people of LA. And director Mel Stuart was there to film the entire enterprise, turning what should have been a simple performance piece into a dissertation on the black experience in the United States. Seemingly lost forever or at least buried by the Establishment for its "incendiary" rhetoric - Warner Brothers brings us this rare, unrelenting gem, in a marvelous 30th Anniversary Special Edition DVD. And the results are just remarkable.

The DVD:

From the very start, people knew Wattstax would be different. The influential Memphis Soul label had decided to participate in the annual Watts Festival, a weeklong summer celebration by the South Central Los Angeles community of Watts, venerating the "rebellion" of 1965. Using that revolt as a catalyst, Watts went about redefining and discovering itself, holding a neighborhood based carnival of pageants, parades and parties. Wattstax would be the culmination of those festivities, a daylong concert featuring every act currently part of the Stax family of musicians. In 1972, Stax owned the airwaves. Isaac Hayes was the most popular black artist in the world (bigger, dare it be said, than the hardest working man in show business, the Godfather of Soul James Brown) and several other groups The Bar-Kays, The Staples Singers had meg-hit records of their own. Drawing on the entire label, from gospel to blues, from the certified funk of Rufus "The Prince of Dance" Thomas to smooth soul stylings of Luther Ingram, the performances themselves would end up being a timeless testament to the power of music. But just like any other gathering of people in the name of a belief or ideology, no one could imagine the impact, and the command, of a single populace united. Thankfully, the entire experience, both at the LA Coliseum and around the Watts area were captured for all time in an unbelievably profound concert film/documentary, simply entitled Wattstax


After watching the entire 105 mesmerizing, mind-blowing minutes of Wattstax, you're first inclination is to wonder aloud just where in the Hell this amazing work of documentary social commentary has been all your cinematic life. Using rare concert footage of the Wattstax festival intermeshed with man on the street interviews and glimpses into the everyday life of Los Angeles blacks, this completely compelling, endlessly fascinating film articulates the anger and the angst, the trials and tribulations of racial relationships in the United States better than most manufactured movies. Instead of focusing on the plethora of negatives that existed in California and the rest of the country circa 1972, Wattstax decided to combine a concert film (ala Woodstock and Monterey Pop) with a fact-based look at the "black is beautiful" movement sweeping the nation. The result feels like the foundations for fundamental change in the minority agenda, a shift away from blame and hatred and more toward a recognition of individual responsibility and group pride. All throughout the course of Wattstax, we see folks speaking their mind, venting their frustration and, occasionally, relying on the propaganda of the past to make their points. But you also hear a new voice, a confident, clear voice that proclaims that human beings are not bound by the actions of other people, but by the belief they have in self. And it is this stunning philosophical proclamation that makes Wattstax more than just an amazing musical experience.

One of the most brilliant conceits employed by director Mel Stuart (who, as the sole white crew member here, had a career that careened all over the filmmaking map, from other factual works like Four Days in November to fictional favorites like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) is the use of a young, untested Richard Pryor as kind of a glorified guest star/ narrator/ Greek chorus. Seated at a bar and riffing on the realities of life as a black man, this comic legend-in-the-making is hilarious, and heartfelt, delivering deadly material that is both incredibly clever and amazingly insightful. When he discusses the winos connection to God, or the befuddling arguments about how "whitey" keeps the African man down, he says more in his simple, sensational monologue style than a series of pundits could ever put forth. Pryor literally steals the movie every time he is seen, and there is a tendency to discount what he has to say as just another chance for some comedic showboating. But if you listen closely, you'll realize why many consider Pryor the best stand up comic ever. His observations and variations on life and how it's lived are light years beyond the buffoonery of today's self-effacing ironists. Richard Pryor understands his people, his community and his place in both implicitly, and his natural ability to find the humor in both amplifies Wattstax entertainment electricity, not to mention its thoughtfulness.

Equally compelling are the various interview moments where members of LA's minority class from actors Ted "Love Boat" Lange and Raymond "Sanford and Son" Anderson (he played Aunt Ester's husband, Woodrow) to everyday people hanging out on the street air their grievances and rediscover their culture, trying to place into perspective the hundreds of years of slavery, persecution and segregation. Almost everything said over 32 years ago still has amazing resonance today, and anyone who thinks that issues like racism and equality are virtually dead need look no further than Wattstax to see how deep the roots really go. It would be easy to dismiss this film as a time capsule, a product of its era and temperament. But the reality is much more mortifying. In some ways, the African American experience in America today has deteriorated, lost in a world of wanton excess and diluted crossover distress. While the opportunities are more prevalent and the obstacles less obvious, the idea of a single race, examining and expanding its consciousness, seems all but gone. If Wattstax is indeed a parchment from the past, the message it shouts is loud and clear: the struggle will never be over, not as long as the fundamental difference of race exists between people. But it seems like, in 1972, that concept was uniting, not dividing individuals. As one of the performers states in the bonus commentary track, the Watts "rebellion" was a referendum on integration. The uprising insisted that before you can become a part of another identity, you first have to figure yourself out. Wattstax was, and continues to be, a pivotal moment in the determination of what it meant to be black in America.

The final element that pulls this all together is the terrific, timeless music and equally eternal musicians who come together in the immense grandeur of the Coliseum to rejoice in all facets of the urban sonic experience. From gospel to R&B, soul to jazz, Wattstax is a snapshot to the amazing scope of the African American aural palette. We witness the absolutely amazing Staples Singers - Pops, Mavis and Yvonne - as they tear through a stellar rendition of "Respect Yourself". The Bar-Kays arrive, and almost upstage the headlining act, as they perform their pitch perfect homage to the offspring of a certain private dick whose a sex machine to all the chicks, "Son of Shaft." Albert King, master of the Blues, offers up a terrific take on "I'll Play the Blues for You". And Carla Thomas presents her previous Stax hit "Pick Up the Pieces" with exquisite grace. But two of the talents in attendance that day really own this offering. Isaac Hayes, the gold-chained Black Moses himself, makes the grandest entrance and the most monumental musical statement (his "Soulsville" is a devastating show-stopper and capper) of the day. But oddly enough, the act that really tears the imaginary roof off the 'sucka' is Rufus Thomas, known to fans as "The Prince of Dance". Like a combination of Rudy Ray Moore's Dolemite with funk pioneers like George Clinton, Thomas gets the crowd up and partying as he plows through the unbelievably catchy "Breakdown". And then, to seal the deal, he prompts an infield stampede as the attendees find it difficult to keep their seats during "The Funky Chicken". From his amazingly witty banter (the organizers use him for crowd control in order to clear off the off-limits grassy areas) to the smoldering, stomp-inducing song styling, he walks away from Wattstax with the single most memorable moments of the entire concert.

In combination, the interviews, comic commentary and music become a maelstrom of meaningful insights into the reasons behind the annual Watts Festival and how significant the presence of Stax Records and their artists were to the community. For those with a hypersensitive proclivity, who believe that any mention of the "N" word demeans and debases the African American model, Wattstax will worry and infuriate you. In 1972, this epithet was still a routine term and it is used hundreds of times throughout the course of this film. It explains prejudice and celebrates brotherhood. It is offered as a blazing denunciation and proffered as an everyday part of the interrelation between people. The language here is indeed raw, but it's real and that's far more important to Wattstax meaning than any PC pandering. Additionally, this is not a standard read stereotypical portrayal of African Americans. All of the awful elements used to categorize and demonize this community are washed away in the simple symbolism of life unadorned, of reality captured on film without modification or manufacturing. Infinite wisdom is usually found in the most minor of circumstances, and listening to the individuals interviewed here provides volumes of awareness that other films about race relations could never even hope to achieve.

Indeed, Wattstax is a beautiful, brave testament to a moment in time when the segregation and persecution of the previous 400 years seemed close to subsiding, when a new, novel sense of optimism and empowerment swept through the African American people. It marked a specific convergence of politics and positions, of a united front moving toward a joint theme of cultural identity. One of the things Stax, as a record label, prided themselves on was the notion that they created music of chance and change. And every artist that performs on Wattstax lives up to that mantra. As a document of how music meshes with individual lives and ethnic circumstances to create an entire mood and atmosphere, Wattstax is a masterpiece. It encompasses all facets of the black experience without ever once resorting to preaching or proselytizing. It never dims the light, nor does it try to change the outlook of the images offered. It is deep and it is direct. It is philosophical and it is prophetic. Beyond Woodstock, surpassing the sunny LA dreams of Monterey Pop, Wattstax is a classic. For those who have never seen it, you are in for the rarest of treats. And for fans who have longed to see the film restored and preserved, this DVD is the answer to your prayers. Wattstax is a remarkable movie of an unbelievable moment in time.

The Video:

Presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen DVD, Wattstax looks stunning. There is some minor grain (belying the use of handheld and portable cameras) and a few moments where the age of the elements show through, but the overall image here is astonishing. It resembles a pristine archeological find, presenting a specific era and feel in its colorful, detailed picture.

The Audio:

It's almost impossible to explain how amazing the sonic circumstances of this DVD are. Wattstax offers some of the most amazing music ever recorded and thanks to the Dolby Digital offering, in either stereo or 5.1 variations, the aural attributes are just incredible. The soul pulsates, the funk percolates and every performance is faultless and powerful. As great as the movie looks, the acoustic elements are equally outstanding.

The Extras:

Loaded with contextual bonuses, this 30th Anniversary edition of Wattstax is one of the best DVD releases this year. We are treated to not only one, but two commentaries, each covering a different aspect of the production. On the primary narrative, various members of the Stax family, including founder Al Bell and artist Isaac Hayes (along with many others, too numerous to mention) as well as director Mel Stuart, discuss the making of the movie and the staging of the concert. Bell provides many of the logistical and procedural issues, while Stuart discusses many of the artistic and cultural choices made. Providing a glimpse into the overall emotion and pride people felt being connected with this concert, it is an amazing listening experience. Equally impressive is the second track, featuring Stax Historian Rob Bowman and Public Enemy frontman, Chuck D. Looking at the film as fans and scholars, both Rob and Chuck provide important trivia, honest interpretations and personal reflections on what they think Wattstax stands for. Though it can be sparse at times, we learn about the sequences cut from the final print, the reason behind the few "staged" inserts and why certain Stax artists (The Dramatics, The Emotions) were not at the show. Both commentaries fulfill the fundamental requirements of an alternative narrative track: they provide the necessary data to understand both the framework and the formation of an amazing movie.

In addition, we are treated to the original "ending" of the movie. When it was released in 1972, MGM mandated that two songs from their then-hit film, Shaft (which Stax artist Isaac Hayes had provided the score for) - "Theme from Shaft" and "Soulsville" be removed due to contractual obligations. Director Stuart had to reshoot the final performance footage, bringing Hayes back from a European tour to perform a new song "Rolling Down a Mountain". That footage is part of the extras offered here. So is the complete performance of "I'll Play the Blue for You" by Albert King. An amazing performer, this master of the guitar proves his title in a terrific take on a great song. In addition, there are trailers for both the original and re-release of the film, as well as a brief onscreen discussion between Chuck D and Rob Bowman about how Wattstax influenced Public Enemy's music. In combination with the incredible sound and vision, Warners is to be complimented for providing a fantastic and fully realized DVD release of this very important title.

Final Thoughts:

So, why is Wattstax not a better-considered concert film? Is it because of the political positions and agenda-based elements scattered in between the songs? Perhaps the financial downfall of Stax as a label led to some manner of MIA status. Could it be that mainstream Hollywood felt that a film with limited "demographic" appeal could not resonate outside of its intended target audience? Surely it can't be because of the music; the soul label had a stranglehold on the pop and R&B charts during this era and several acts including Hayes were superstars. No, it seems like in the litany of lamentable decisions, the timelessness of this brilliant film was relegated to a mere archaic afterthought. It is obvious that the individuals in charge felt that Wattstax had an immediate and long lasting impact, but other must have thought that the film just didn't offer up the classicism of the hippy-dippy love movement of the 1960s. But there is something far more important going on here, something that transcends the music, the interviews, the commentary and the stand-up routines. Wattstax, both the festival and film, proved that the image of black people in America was distorted and unconscionably perverted by the traditional media and the government to focus on what was wrong with and in the community. But on a sweltering day in August, 100,000 people came together in celebration...and nothing remotely rebellious occurred except fun and togetherness. Though it's not considered so today, this is a critical call: Wattstax is one of the best concert/documentary films ever. And it deserves to be treated as such. Thankfully, Warner Brothers answered the challenge. This is a fantastic DVD experience.

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