`Wattstax' holds its power

Review: The 1972 concert film remains a clear-eyed view of a pivotal time in African-American music and history.

June 02, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

If you couldn't see "Wattstax" with your own eyes, you wouldn't believe it.

The film about a 1972 benefit concert in Los Angeles that raised money for community organizations in the embattled Watts neighborhood is so full of talent, historical importance, exuberance, optimism and deep emotional expression that it's difficult to believe one movie can hold it all.

"Wattstax," which returns to the Charles today after a triumphant screening at the Maryland Film Festival in April, puts the lie to phrases like "larger than life." As this film demonstrates, life can be breathtakingly large in its own right.

Staged six years after the devastating riots in Watts destroyed much of that African-American neighborhood, Wattstax was conceived not only as a way for the community to heal itself, but as a showcase for the artists of the Stax record label. The Memphis-based studio was home to such legends as blues singer Albert King, R&B artists Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas and Johnny Taylor; pop-R&B acts Isaac Hayes, the Bar-Kays and the Emotions -- and a comedian named Richard Pryor.

"Wattstax" was originally released in 1973 and has enjoyed a revival in the past year. It opens with an introduction by Pryor, who appears throughout the film performing hilarious, off-the-cuff monologues about the themes that emerge from what's being sung on stage. Director Mel Stuart also wisely sent crews into the Watts neighborhood to conduct "man on the street" conversations (many staged) about the reality of black life in 1972. The result is not just a hip concert film, but a vividly compelling chapter of American social history.

Stuart, who until "Wattstax" was probably best known for directing "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," also sent dozens of crews into the crowd at the Los Angeles Coliseum concert site, and they came back with an unusually candid and affectionate backstage view of a historically misunderstood community.

We see concert-goers arriving in dashikis, hot pants, velvet fedoras and Sunday best, some with Afros out to here; We listen as Pryor mordantly notes that although there are laws on the books protecting pedestrians, there aren't any prohibiting policemen from "accidentally shooting" his black brothers in the, uhm, rear end.

We eavesdrop as the denizens of barber shops and rib joints and front stoops recall their earliest encounters with racism. We hear Jesse Jackson -- who with Melvin Van Peebles, Billy Eckstine, Fred Williamson and Richard Roundtree served as a Wattstax emcee -- announce to the crowd of 112,000 that Wattstax would be "a day of black people taking care of black people's business."

The film's transcendent moments are too many to single out. But some of the more riveting scenes include the Emotions' performance of the gospel hymn "Peace, Be Still" in a tiny Los Angeles church; the Staple Singers performing "Respect Yourself" as if they were in the Stax studio and not in front of tens of thousands of people on a hot August day; Rufus Thomas good-naturedly ordering hundreds of fans off the football field after leading them in the Funky Chicken; and Jesse Jackson introducing Isaac Hayes to the introductory strains of "The Theme from `Shaft,' " then ceremoniously removing the floppy hat from the man known as "The Black Moses."

Just as compelling as the celebrities are the men and women who candidly discuss their feelings about everything from prison to the cultural significance of the Afro; from the meaning of the "power shake" to sexual relationships.

Not every sequence in "Wattstax" works so smoothly. A cheesy scene of Little Milton lip-synching "Walking the Back Streets and Crying" is a bummer after so much pungent reality, although another staged segment featuring Hayes singing "Rolling Down a Mountainside" is seamlessly edited to resemble a live performance. (The song was a last-minute addition when the rights to "Shaft" became unavailable.)

But far greater than any individual performance is the ephemeral historical moment that "Wattstax" captures so tenderly. With crack cocaine and all its attendant depredations still just over the horizon, the African-American community seemed finally to be coming into its own, with its signature style, humor, spirituality and collective memory intact.

With the one-step-forward, two-steps-back progress that's been made in the intervening 30 years, "Wattstax" stands as celebratory and bittersweet proof that the dream was once again cruelly deferred -- but hasn't been vanquished.

`Wattstax'

Directed by: Mel Stuart

Rating: Not rated (adult language)

Running time: 98 minutes

Released by: Sony Pictures Repertory

Sun score: ****

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