Registering the Registry 2020: Wattstax (1973)

Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! This week, we’re taking a look at the event sometimes referred to as the Black Woodstock, a benefit concert in Watts, California that brought together Stax Records’ top talent of the day in a celebration of soul, funk, blues, jazz, and black culture of the 70s. It’s Wattstax from 1973!

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Watts and the surrounding neighborhoods are consumed by the riots for a full six days, the National Guard’s presence and a hastily-implemented policy of mass arrests doing little to slow its spread. In excess of 30,000 persons are estimated to take part, of whom over 3,000 are arrested. More than 1,000 buildings are damaged or destroyed in some fashion, and 34 lives are lost, primarily as a result of LAPD and the NG’s excessively brutal tactics. It is not a remotely happy or proud moment in the city’s history, and while identification of links between the housing crisis and the riot in part led to California reinstating the Rumford Fair Housing Act after it was pointlessly overturned, many in the white community at the time look on the Watts Riots as an example of communist subversion within the United States, or else reinforcing proof of belief in inherent violence or inferiority amongst black populations.

Happily, we are not here to talk about the negative effects of the Watts Riots. In 1966, to commemorate their first anniversary, community activists and leaders (notably Tommy Jacquette) came together to organize the Watts Summer Festival, a remembrance not of the pain and violence which defined the riots, but black heritage, black nationalism, black community, black culture. Initially a small, fairly disorganized street event, the first Festival is enough of a success to inspire another, and then another, and then another, and soon it is a regular fixture of the neighborhood during the late 60s and early 70s, a defining moment in the Black Power movement, a monument to the slogan “Black is Beautiful.” It attracts attention from figures diverse as musician Charles Wright, boxer/activist Muhammad Ali, and most notably for our purposes today, Stax Records West Coast director Forrest Hamilton, who came up with an idea. A benefit concert at the 1972 Watts Summer Festival, featuring all of Stax’s top-tier talent, with proceeds funneled to charitable organizations in the Watts neighborhood.

Some further history: By the early 70s, Memphis-based record label Stax had undergone quite the rocky period. Founder Jim Stewart had cut business ties with his sister and co-founder Estelle Axton (note the names), the label lost some of their best talent in Otis Redding and the majority of the Bar-Kays to a plane crash in 1967, and the majority of members in Booker T and the MG’s to dissatisfaction in 1970, AND the sale of primary distributor Atlantic Records to Warner Bros.-Seven Arts resulted in some legal fuckery that cost the label access to their entire pre-1968 catalogue of major soul and blues hits. Fortuitous new signs such as The Staple Singers and the newly-popular Isaac Hayes, alongside fresh hits from old talent like Eddie Floyd and Rufus Thomas kept the label’s fortunes afloat, but the shakeup and need to become an independent label left former marketing executive and new co-owner Al Bell convinced Stax needed to be more than just a record company. To this end, he pushed for a mass diversification in Stax’s signed talent and output, opening a number of subsidiary labels to expand their reach into new markets and make Stax synonymous with the African-American community at large. He also became involved in Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity), a black self-help/social justice nonprofit, and, when his main contact out west proposed a benefit concert linked to a large black cultural gathering, jumped right on the opportunity to expand their mindshare.

This would be no ordinary street concert. They’d hold it in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, home to the Rams and past (and future) host to the Olympics, though the entrance fee would only be a single dollar. They’d hold it on the 30th birthday of most popular Stax artist Isaac Hayes, coincidentally taking place right in the midst of the Festival’s activities, to double the celebration and mass appeal. They’d get Reverend and Bell’s close friend Jesse Jackson to emcee and introduce the event with his self-actualizing “I Am Somebody” poem. They’d assemble a crew of primarily minority workers to capture the whole event and the surrounding culture, helmed by documentarian Mel Stuart, late of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Naturally, they’d feature anyone who was anyone at Stax throughout the five hour concert: Kim Weston, The Staple Singers, William Bell, Eddie Floyd, Rance Allan, David Porter, the new Bar-Kays, Carla Thomas, Albert King, Rufus Thomas, The Soul Children, with a triumphant capper from pre-Scientology Isaac Hayes. And hell, let’s some unknown comedian to host the film during in-between stand-up bits — this Richard Pryor guy seems like he’s going places! In total, the event would prove a massive success, drawing a crowd 112,000 strong, and though the movie would vanish from circulation shortly after television airings which netted it a Golden Globe nomination (Best Documentary, it lost to Visions of Eight) owing to lack of interest and legal disputes over licensed music in the film (notably the Shaft theme and “Soulsville”), a 2003 restoration of the film to its original state premiered to further great success.

They called the event and the subsequent film Wattstax. And for all the build-up here outlining the concert’s background, organizers, and participants, Wattstax the concert isn’t exactly the primary focus of Wattstax the movie.

Understand, this is not a concert film in the vein of The Last Waltz, wherein Martin Scorsese’s fascination with The Band and Robbie Robertson’s personality leads to a focus on personality-driven music history when the footage isn’t playing. Stuart and his crew allow the talent their moment in the spotlight, increasingly so as the movie presses on and we get to the bigger name draws, but often and unfailingly we’ll cut after a verse ’n’ ’maybe chorus to watch Wattstax’s real draw: the place and people of Watts. To accomplish Bell’s goal of Stax as pillar of the black community, Stuart’s team shot ample footage of life around the neighborhood, conducted interviews on a wide variety of topics pertaining to black life of the time, and cut the film together with the concert serving as topical guidance, the styles and substance of each selected song suggesting just what the interviewees will talk about next. The concert as singularly important main event is such a distant second concern compared against capturing the community that the pieces Stuart shot after the main event are staged amongst the people or their stomping grounds — Pryor performed his stand-up at a local bar after the event, The Emotions run their gospel number “Peace Be Still” for worshipers at the Friendly Will Baptist Church, Little Milton sings the blues of “Walking the Streets and Crying” at the ever-popular blues inspiration location of a trainyard, and Johnnie Taylor works the Summit Club with the rollicker “Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone” a month after the festivities. Course, just as the musical performances aren’t fully live (including the original theatrical ending, which replaced Hayes’ numbers with a prerecorded rendition of “Rolling Down a Mountainside”), so too are the interviews staged, using local actors discussing predetermined topics. Given, however, the lot are drawn from the LA talent pool, few of whom were established professionals at the time, and given the content of their discussions are genuine as are their surroundings, I see no reason to count this as strike against the film; the intent and message come through all the same.

To give an idea of the breadth in discussion on display: the early overlayed Staples Singers songs “Oh La De Da” and “We the People” are paired with images of the concert’s set-up process alongside discussions about the first time the participants learned the world viewed them as lesser for being black, while Jesse Jacksons’ “I Am Somebody” poem lead into Kim Weston singing what he terms the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice,” in tandem with a montage of images showing successful African-American political and cultural innovators (including George Washington Carver). Gospel numbers from the Rance Allen group are intercut with crowd shots at the concert to explore the religious power of a voice in musical ecstasy before we switch to a montage of black-run Watts churches for The Emotions to explore the deep, gentler side of choral faith, which in turns gives way to discussion from the peanut gallery about their own experiences with stand-up Sunday gospel processions, with an “Old Time Religion” capper from Stax’s Golden 13. The Staple Singers’ only on-stage performance in “Respect Yourself” gives us our next topic, one of self-betterment as revolution, explored through both images of LA’s broad swath of black cultural centers and snippets of conversation about black hair, building a better future for black children, being Black above all other divisive political identities, and on into the new Bar-Kays running an absurdly 70s fashion display with “Son of Shaft.”

After this, the interviewees get their own choice of conversational topic, guiding us into talk about their woes involving racial infighting and professional discrimination, all manner of shitty situations which get a body down and make you wanna sing the blues… so of course the musicians follow suit. Albert King and Little Milton provide their renditions of “I’ll Play the Blues for You” and “Walking the Back Streets and Crying” as the gallery discuss all the times they’ve had the blues from breakups and tragedies, as well as their own opinions on the genre as the black man and woman’s constant companion. This being a place of celebration and musical transformation, though, we aren’t depressed by these thoughts, and instead jump into the picture’s hardest rocking number with “Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone,” clips of Johnnie Taylor’s electric performance mixed with footage of pimps and sex workers on the street. Even this upper take on infidelity can’t dominate the mood too long, as Mel and Tim’s audio-only “I May Not Be What You Want” gives us yet another montage, this time with dozens of loving couples whose passage inspires the participants to reminisce on everything they love about the black brother and sister, even in their worst hours; and yet total positivity is counterbalanced after Carla Thomas’ wistful “Pick Up the Pieces” when they start into discussing the troubles between black men and women, from concerns over dating non-black partners to confrontational difficulties.

It is, you’ll note, a film driven by music and dialogues that never settle for just the one angle. Black culture through Wattstax’s lens is simultaneously this wonderfully diverse thing of such depth that it can barely find time for brief images of everything there is to see before darting onto the next, and an evolving entity with many problems internal and external requiring redress before it can become its best self. I think you see this best in Richard Pryor’s comedic segments, whose admittedly I admittedly took some time in grokking. While his blue humor is often off-color compared to even the bluntest interview participants, and though his self-deprecating style sometimes seems too harshly at odds with the trend towards positivity tempered by honesty, it eventually becomes clear the freedom afforded by his presence as a filterless additional host removed from events enables him to act as a heavier counterbalance to ensure we get some look at EVERYTHING. The topics the most honest and direct participant will touch in roundabout or sweeten for the camera — the alienation problem in black intellectualism, trends towards laziness and mis-assigned blame, harshly disciplinarian parents, cheaters and liars and gamblers in the community, the police brutality which inspired the event in the first place— Pryor can tackle head-on in a disarming joke, ensuring the bad of black life can exist alongside the numerous goods without overwhelming them.

And it’s really this which I think gives Wattstax its greatest power, its willingness to hold the beautiful and ugly up on the same pedestal and argue through song and discussion alike, “This all matters, in totality, and nothing about it makes any of this lesser.” Consider the theme in microcosm when Rufus Thomas, the novelty dance song singer, takes to the stage and drives the crowd absolutely wild. Event organizers were instructed to keep the crowd off the field to prevent needless damage for upcoming games, and proved entirely incapable of holding back the press of people as his number “The Breakdown” reached its end. Realizing he needed to exert control, the film cuts to show Thomas priming the crowd for a rush, giving a small signal for a dance pit on the field during the main body of his hit “Do the Funky Chicken,” and then herding everyone back into the stands now that they’ve spent their energy. A single man stays behind to defy orders and make a spectacle of himself, and Thomas simply throws out rhyming ribs to let him act out a while longer until he instructs the stragglers to gently pull him outa there. Or, in yet compacted form, Luther Ingram taking to stage for a soulful round of “If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don’t Wanna Be Right” as the interviewees jokingly discuss their own past infidelities. Just as the summer festival which became the Wattstax concert took an event of horrible violence and made it into something uplifting, so too do the musicians and speakers of Wattstax acknowledge and play with some of their viceful impulses, and then take after Jackson’s rallying cry. “I may be poor, but I am somebody! I must be, I’m God’s child! I must be respected and protected!”

The film concludes on Isaac Hayes’ stunner of an arrival, which gets the crowd into one hell of a mood with the simple removal of a hood to reveal his shaved bald head before he even sings the opening, “Who’s the black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks?” With so bombastically individualistic an entrance and performance, you’d think the picture’s done with its theming and has set about to run the fireworks, but in “Soulsville” we see this assumption proven false. A sax-heavy portrait of all the little indignities of black urban living, all places across the country and globe alike united in problems and universal suffering, yet it is a sound of appreciation, of admiration for muddling through, and its single word chorus is layered over a rapid flash of images from all across the film. Hayes and his music become such vector for everything Wattstax is meant to represent, he’s overlayed into a panning image of Watts apartment blocks with just the right timing to make his profile and the image one and the same. Images of the participants fade in and out of a shot on the crowd craning away to the greater Los Angeles area, and we conclude on a fist raised in solidarity of Black Power. Everything explored herein, from faith to love to struggles to triumphs to great figures to the common person, all dimensions of the black American experience, are right there in that fist, and its accompanying reprise of “”Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

Living nearly fifty years on from that August’s festivities, we know not everything turned to gold from sheer positivity. The Watts Summer Festival waxed and waned in popularity over the decades, Hayes and Pryor and Jackson fell in and out of public favor, Stax folded in 1975 before reforming as a purely reissue label in the early 80s, and the circumstances which sparked the Watts riots have not much changed. We’re still in a time when America’s police forces hire thuggish bigots and do everything possible to cover their crimes against minority populations, even when there’s direct video evidence showing undeniable wrongdoing. The issues and faces and concerns and responses morph with the passage of time, but that there is strife and conflict and racist action from the powerful never seems to change. Let this not serve as occasion to despair. There is still endless work ahead, both for America’s minority communities and those of us who count ourselves allies, before bad faith political opponents are ousted through repeated electoral defeat, before community action and real helpful legislation can improve the poorest neighborhoods and better working opportunities and ensure a proper living wage for everyone. But when all a body can do has been done, when the fight has been fought and one needs to reflect and relax and feel comfort in one’s space, let the spirit of Wattstax go on. If a concert organized by corporate interest and cinematically documented by a white man can argue this passionately for the necessity and vitality of all aspects to black existence in Watts circa 1972, then all of us here in 2021 would do well to hold such a celebratory, thoughtful sentiment in our hearts. Embrace your heritage, whatever it be. Learn of and share in others’. Sing out loud and proud with your whole community, till it resounds loud as the roaring sea.

(Something about works containing Jackson’s poem really bring out the revolutionary fire in me, don’t they?)

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Once again we come to the end, and once again it is time for you the people to have your say. Leave your thoughts on the picture and its messaging down below, and keep your eyes peeled for next week’s offering. From the land of late 70s nostalgia for 50s teen culture, we find John Travolta and Olivia-Newton John to the music of Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. It’s 1978’s cultural juggernaut Grease, from director Randal Kleiser. Being so popular, you can rent or buy it just about anywhere — YouTue, Vudu, Amazon, Alamo, Google, the works — or, as I just found through JustWatch, you can snag a free trial of something called fubo and watch it there? So long as you remember to cancel before the payments kick in because Jesus Chrysler, sixty-five bones a month for a streaming service? Mad. Anyhow, see you then!

Gargus also writes plenty more reviews over on Letterboxd, rambles about this and that from time to time over on twitter, and accepts donations on ko-fi.

I write on the National Film Registry.