Brothers and Sisters 

Thirty years late, Wattstax gets a properly funky release.

For years its existence has been more rumor than fact -- a black Woodstock, filmed by the man who directed Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with stand-up commentary provided by a then-virtually unknown Richard Pryor. A soundtrack, two discs' worth featuring the likes of Isaac Hayes and the Staple Singers and Johnnie Taylor, appeared thirteen years ago, and it teased audiences who'd heard of but never seen 1973's Wattstax, Mel Stuart's documentary of the 1972 Los Angeles benefit concert held to memorialize the 1965 uprising that burned, baby, burned Watts nearly to the ground.

The soundtrack was appropriately funky -- lean close to the speakers, and you could smell the sweat of performers and 100,000 audience members melting together beneath the Southern California summer sun -- but also lacking in context and soul. It provided the highlights in the spotlight, chief among them the Bar-Kays' "Son of Shaft" and the Staple Singers' "Respect Yourself," but left out everything else Stuart felt the film needed to help it transcend being just a "fucking concert movie," as he explained to Stax Records executives when insisting on being allowed to get comments from Watts residents to intercut between performances.

The film, long a victim of legal wrangling and only now seen in the version intended for release thirty years ago, slowly began surfacing at the beginning of the new millennium -- in New York in May 2000, at Sundance this year, at various film fests recently. Finally, this special edition, which restores Hayes' performance of "Theme from Shaft" and the film-closing "Soulsville," begins its slow trek around the country before its DVD release this fall. The timing couldn't be better: It arrives just in time to link arms with Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker's Only the Strong Survive, a heartfelt homage to some of the same R&B artists who appear in Wattstax. It captures the performers when they were incendiary stars -- an announcement is heard warning audiences members that if they don't act right, Hayes could leave the stage at any moment -- while Hegedus and Pennebaker portray them as defiant survivors reluctant to walk into the sunset.

But what remains after all this time isn't the world's greatest rockumentary. It is, however, the most sampled documentary; copious times Public Enemy and other hip-hop acts lifted from Wattstax emcee Jesse Jackson's "Brothers and sisters!" exhortation. The performances, while often ferocious and engaging, are not career milestones for anyone involved; you will wonder what in hell Rufus Thomas was thinking wearing a pink sports coat and matching Bermuda shorts, with white go-go boots, during his performance of "Do the Funky Chicken." And we're taken out of the Los Angeles Coliseum so often -- for barbershop and restaurant interviews with locals about relations between black and white, men and women -- it's possible to forget for long stretches you're even watching a documentary of a single event. The Emotions perform "Peace Be Still" in the Friendly Will Church; later, during one of the film's most incendiary and memorable moments, Johnnie Taylor drips all over "Jody's Got Your Girl and Gone" within the sweatbox confines of LA's Summit Club.

It's Pryor who ultimately makes Wattstax invaluable: He's still young, still fleshing out the routines that would make him immortal, still finding a way to melt down unforgiving anger into unflinching comedy. He's the conscience of the film, shouting above the chorus of performers and interview subjects. Pryor was two years away from going Top 40 with That Nigger's Crazy, a phrase often repeated here; this is the up-and-comer who blew up in Vegas and moved to the small blacks-only clubs, who ditched his nostalgic Cosby show for a present-tense race riot.

Stuart took his camera to a club, sat Pryor on a stool, and let the 32-year-old loose. What he wound up with was two hours of material whittled down to vital bits that propel Wattstax with far more force than any performer captured in the movie. The angrier Pryor gets, the funnier he becomes. "Every time you pick up the paper, 'Nigger Accidentally Shot in the Ass,'" he begins, winding up early on when discussing white cops. The chorus laughs off-camera, and Pryor widens his eyes and grins and bares teeth and goes for the kill. "How do you accidentally shoot a nigger six times in the chest?" He imitates a white man, in that monotone drone he'd make so famous by mid-decade. "Well, my gun fell and just went crazy." Somewhere there must sit the unseen footage, and it, as much as Wattstax all these years, demands to be released.


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments will be removed.

Latest in Movie Review

Author Archives

Special Reports

The Beer Issue 2020

The Decade in Review

The events and trends that shaped the Teens.

Best of the East Bay


© 2020 Telegraph Media    All Rights Reserved
Powered by Foundation