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Wattstax (R)
Columbia Pictures
Official Site
Director: Mel Stuart
Producer: Larry Shaw
Cast: Richard Pryor, Jesse Jackson Ted Lange, Raymond Lewis, Luther Ingram, Isaac Hayes, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, The Dramatics, The Staple Singers, The Rance Allen Group, The Emotions, The Bar Kays, Mel & Tim

Rating: out of 5

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.

—Edward Rholes


hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

It’s worth a full-price ticket.

It’s worth a matinee ticket.

Wait for video rental.

Check out the video from the library, if you must.

While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...

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