'Wattstax': a peaceful explosion of soul

Originally conceived as a 'black Woodstock,' the 1973 documentary is part celebration and part commentary.

Film

May 28, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,Sun Film Critic

One of the most galvanizing moments of this year's Maryland Film Festival came mid-evening Friday, when a crowd fairly levitated while watching "Wattstax."

The 1973 film, which opens at the Charles on Friday, was billed as a sort of "black Woodstock," a documentary of a 1972 concert in Los Angeles that featured a number of legendary rhythm and blues and gospel acts, including Rufus Thomas, the Staple Singers, Albert King and Isaac Hayes.

But "Wattstax," which was directed by Mel Stuart (best known for "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory"), turned out to be much more than just another concert film. Stuart and his crew included interviews with members of the black community of L.A., as well as a running commentary by comedian Richard Pryor, to create an extraordinarily entertaining, thoughtful and moving chapter of American social history.

The idea for Wattstax the concert was germinated in 1972 by Al Bell, the velvet-voiced co-owner and vice president of the Memphis-based Stax Records. Bell had recently opened Stax West as a Los Angeles presence for the record label, with an eye toward marketing Stax Records on the West Coast, developing regional talent and establishing a name in the television and film business. For several years since the 1965 riots in Watts, a black neighborhood in L.A., the community had put on a summer festival to commemorate the riots and to raise funds for community-based charities.

Bell wanted Stax West to be part of the annual Watts Summer Fest and began to plan for a few Stax acts to take the main stage in Will Rogers Park, but then he remembered that one of his artists, John KaSandra, had wanted to stage a "black Woodstock." Between Bell, KaSandra and Stax West executive Forrest Hamilton (son of jazz musician Chico Hamilton), the idea of Wattstax was born: a free concert in the Los Angeles Coliseum at which virtually every Stax act would play.

"Originally it was going to be called 'Woodstax,' " said Rob Bowman, a Toronto-based author of "Soulsville, USA," a history of Stax Records. "Thank God it wasn't." Bowman noted that although admission was originally going to be free, "for various contractual reasons they couldn't do that. So tickets were $1 apiece. They still gave away $30,000 in tickets to kids and people who couldn't afford them." The earnings from tickets, about $73,000, went to the charitable organizations associated with the Watts Summer Fest.

Throughout the hot August day of Wattstax, music fans danced, sang and celebrated in relative tranquility, while an all-black and unarmed security force stood watch. "This was the largest single gathering of African-American people outside of a religious or civil rights function," Bowman said. "It was very much a statement. 'We don't need the white police. The community can maintain itself, even 100,000 people, without guns.' "

Bell approached Stuart to make a documentary of the show early on, and the director had no problem finding funding from Columbia Pictures. The studio wanted its own version of "Woodstock," which had done so well for Warner Brothers in 1970, and concert movies in general were considered valuable franchises.

Stuart enlisted 20 camera crews, most of them African-American, to shoot film not only of the acts on stage but also of the audience dancing and, at one point during Rufus Thomas' performance, rushing on to the field to join in a brand new dance called the Funky Chicken. "We went down and spent the day and shot the concert," Stuart recalled. "And everything seemed to go very well. Then we brought the footage back and I said, 'We have a concert. That's not good enough. A concert is boring, there are so many of them, who cares?' "

Stuart decided to send his camera crews into the Watts community to do interviews with men and women "on the street" to get a sense of how black music -- R&B, pop and gospel -- reflects and informs black life. The results were funny and often highly insightful reflections on the relationships between black men and women, the effects of racism and the importance of oral tradition in the African-American community.

But Stuart wanted more. For one thing, he discovered that a number of Stax musicians weren't able to play the Wattstax concert, so he filmed them on location: "Wattstax" includes stirring scenes of the gospel group the Emotions singing in a church and soul singer Johnny Taylor singing in a nightclub.

"Then," Stuart recalled, "I said, 'We need somebody like the chorus in Henry V. Well, of course nobody knew what I was talking about, but I said, 'He describes what's going to happen.' " Stuart found his chorus in Pryor, who had recently decided to turn away from a more mainstream career, sign with Stax and become what Bowman termed a more "Afro-centric comedian."

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