The re-released Wattstax is a concert film documenting a huge soul music
festival held on the seventh anniversary of the notorious
Watts riots. Dubbed the “Black Woodstock” by some, Wattstax
featured artists from the legendary Memphis soul label Stax
records. (which would fold only a few years later)
The concert itself is a spectacle of the times, held at the
L.A. Coliseum, where the crowd is attended to by all-black
security personnel and kept in stadium seats fenced off from
the main stage, an unusual precaution, probably a consequence
of the Altamont disaster. The concert begins as the audience
sits impassively through a rendition of the National Anthem.
They are soon after roused by none other than the young Jesse
Jackson, proudly coiffed with an impressive afro, who
leads a version of the “black National Anthem,” (“Lift Ev’ry
Voice And Sing”).
More than just a concert documentary, Wattstax attempts to
capture the flavor and paranoia of the times, intercutting
footage of the Watts riot and Martin Luther King, Jr.,
with slice-of-life interviews with various black Angelinos,
(among them a young, pre-“Love Boat” Ted Lange)
and even some vintage Richard Pryor comedy routines.
In fact, the interviews and tangential material are featured
almost as prominently as the music itself.
Given the dire state of Stax records at the time, and a line
up, that with the exception of Isaac Hayes, would be
familiar only to a devoted soul aficionado, the Woodstock
pretensions would seem a bit absurd. That’s not to say the
concert doesn’t offer some memorable scenes. There’s Jesse
Jackson priming the audience for the arrival of Isaac Hayes,
who, with great pomp and circumstance, appears in his “Black
Moses” persona. Perhaps best of all is the elderly Rufus
Thomas, who prompts the audience to jump the fence, go
back afterward, and even come back to whisk away a obstinate
show-off, all while wearing one of the most ridiculous costumes
ever worn by someone not named Elton John.
Taken all together Wattstax is a jumble of sights and sounds
that, while perhaps lacking focus, nonetheless succeeds in
capturing a place and time.