WATTSTAX is a stirring chronicle of the all-black benefit concert sponsored by Stax records and the Schlitz Brewing Company, that was held at the LA Coliseum for the community of Watts, California, in the summer of 1972. Featuring performances by Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers, and others, the film devotes equal time to candid interviews with residents of Watts discussing racial issues, as well as some hilarious monologues by Richard Pryor.
The film begins with a montage set to The Dramatics singing "What You See Is What You Get," which includes footage of the 1965 ghetto riots in Watts, resident interviews, street scenes, and a Richard Pryor monologue about how LA cops keep "accidentally" shooting black people. Before the concert begins, Rev. Jesse Jackson leads the crowd in a recitation of the National Black Litany: "I Am Somebody," intercut with footage of Martin Luther King delivering a speech. Shots of numerous Watts churches are shown during a performance of the gospel standard "Old Time Religion," while some men
discuss their feelings about what it means to be black in America. During a set by The Staple Singers, which includes "Respect Yourself," shots of the festive crowd (among whom are actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee), are intercut with scenes of students at black high schools. The concert continues with performances by Bar Kays ("Son of Shaft"); a rousing rendition of "Funky Chicken" by Rufus Thomas; and Luther Ingram doing "If Lovin' You Is Wrong, I Don't Want to Be Right." As night falls, Isaac Hayes is ushered onto the stage with a police escort and sings "God Is on Our Side," and the
concert concludes with a reprise of "I Am Somebody."
WATTSTAX is not so much a pure concert movie as it is a socio-political document with music, and a celebration of the Black Power movement in the wake of the 1965 Watts riots. That it succeeds as both cinema and sociology is due more to the music and the importance of the racial issues being explored than to Mel Stuart's routine and unfocused direction. Though technically competent, thanks to concert staging by Melvin Van Peebles, and a topnotch crew of cinematographers, including John Alonzo (CHINATOWN) and Larry Clark (KIDS), the directorial approach seems confused and vaguely
condescending. Best known for directing WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971), Stuart began his career making documentaries, including the Oscar-nominated FOUR DAYS IN NOVEMBER (1964), but brings no particular insight or empathy to the subject matter of black pride and empowerment, choosing instead to concentrate on demeaning crowd shots of wiggling behinds and wildly dancing, half-dressed women, as well as the outrageous fashions and demeanor of the various performers.
The film is saved, however, by the raw power of the performances, and especially, Richard Pryor's bitterly funny observations, profanely touching on such topics as black relationships with the police; how black power handshakes keep changing; whether "black" or "colored" is the preferred term; and poking fun at black men's macho attitudes (including his own). The "rap-session" interviews with angry denizens of Watts, (which, incredibly, include Ted Lange--who later played the less-than-radical Isaac on "The Love Boat") are also fascinating, covering attitudes towards white society and
vice versa; black-on-black violence; feelings towards white women; what to do when you have the blues; and the pros and cons of "natural." The performers themselves are all hugely enjoyable, particularly The Staple Singers and Rufus Thomas, although in the original theatrical cut of the film, Isaac Hayes's heroic entrance turns out to be anti-climactic. MGM threatened to sue WATTSTAX producer Columbia Pictures for including the Hayes numbers "Shaft" and "Soulsville," which were prominently featured in MGM's 1971 SHAFT. A new ending was shot and the bulk of Hayes's performance shelved. When a special edition of WATTSTAX was produced in 2003 under the supervision of restoration expert Tom Christopher, the songs were put back in. It's also amusing to see a young, Afro-wearing
Jesse Jackson, even if he is spouting the same rhyming rhetoric as always (e.g., "Don't say burn, baby, burn...but learn, baby, learn.") All in all, WATTSTAX is not up to the level of the best concert movies, but as a record of some of the major black musicians of the time, and of the connection between music, black culture, and the emerging black consciousness, it's a resonant and evocative historical time capsule. (Extreme profanity.)
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- Released: 1973
- Rating: R
- Review: WATTSTAX is a stirring chronicle of the all-black benefit concert sponsored by Stax records and the Schlitz Brewing Company, that was held at the LA Coliseum for the community of Watts, California, in the summer of 1972. Featuring performances by Isaac Hay… (more)