Wattstax (dir. Mel Stuart, Stax)

ISAAC HAYES, ROD STEWART and assorted FACES were at the preview of a new soul film. So was MM‘s RICHARD WILLIAMS…

EIGHT YEARS ago this summer, the black ghetto district of Los Angeles responded to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King by exploding into flame.

The Watts riots were a turning-point in the consciousness of Black America. They made clear the depth of the outrage, that it wasn’t just the Panthers but ordinary law-abiding black citizens too who felt that the time had come.

Exactly seven years later, on August 20, 1972, almost 100,000 people congregated in the vast bowl of the L.A. Memorial Stadium for an anniversary celebration sponsored by Stax Records and the Schlitz beer company.

The reason for the gathering was a concert by practically the entire Stax artist roster, with the proceeds going to the Martin Luther King Hospital in Watts and an organisation formed to right sickle-cell anaemia, a disease which particularly attacks children in the black ghettoes.

In the concert, Stax saw a good opportunity to make a movie. So throughout the event, many cameras rolled to record the music and the people who came.

The film, titled Wattstax, is now completed and received its British premiere at a private showing in London last week — attended by its star, Isaac Hayes, and interested observers including Rod Stewart and several other Faces.

It began, more or less, with shots of workmen building a stage in the middle of the football field — and I was assailed with immediate horrors that director Mel Stuart had gone for the easy, money-spinning Woodstock/Monterey Pop method, full of dull cinema-verité passages.

Not so, thank God. Although the music, and the cavorting of the audience, make up a good half of the film, it’s interspersed with interviews with the people who live in Watts — and they amplify the music so beautifully that this film is the perfect education for anyone who want to know where the Blues and thus R&B are coming from.

Around the time we see Albert King on stage, for instance, there are quotes from a variety of “street people” about the general subject of the Blues; and when one older man says “I’ve been down so long, gettin’ up never even crosses mah mind,” it says more about the subject than a million words of critical analysis.

There’s a lot of that kind of thing: black men discuss their attitude to black women, and vice versa, and there are interesting sidelights on many other aspects of their culture, from church-worship to “natural” hair dos. All of the talking hums and sings with the energy that makes ghettoes such stimulating places, even if they’re godawful to live in.

There are also long sections devoted to some side-splitting routines from a hip black comedian named Richard Pryor. Taking over where Bill Cosby left off, he pokes fun at all aspects of new black consciousness — a long skit on Black Power handshakes is a treat — and it’s good to see a film that’s prepared to deflate some of its own seriousness.

In a few cases, music sequences are taken from outside the concert: the Emotions, an excellent girl trio, perform a thrilling ‘Peace Be Still’ in a storefront church, to a congregation of nodding old ladies and younger ones possessed by the “spirit-feel.”

We see blacks in fantastic fur coats getting out of vast Silver Clouds and Caddies to enter a plush Watts niterie, wherein Johnny Taylor, “The Soul Philosopher,” sweatily performs his classic ‘Jody’s Got Your Girl And Gone’. Then, in a sequence which apes the worst of TOTP, the great Little Milton sits by a bonfire on the wrong side of the tracks and lip-syncs to ‘Walking The Backstreet And Crying’.

But the stadium itself is where most of the action happens. The Rev Jesse Jackson whips the crowd into the call-and-response pattern of the National Black Litany: “I am somebody!” “I AM SOME-BODY!” “What time is it?” “NATION TIME!”

Ex-Motowner Kim Weston sings ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and ‘Lift Every Voice And Sing’ before the Staple Singers take the stage for their fantastic million-seller, ‘Respect Yourself’ — which takes off when Pop cedes the limelight to daughter Mavis, who proves her soulful greatness with no sweat at all.

Keeping with the gospel orientation, the Rance Allen Group perform ‘Lyin’ On The Truth’ in a unique blend of church music and R&B. Rance, hiding his huge girth inside an oddly Edwardian tailcoat, delivers some of the most fearsome whoops and hollers you’ll ever hear (check out his new Stax single, ‘(There’s Gonna Be) A Showdown’.)

The Bar-Kays strike one of the few incongruous notes: clad in a variety of silly costumes (including a giant snow-white Afro wig), they play ‘Son Of Shaft’ in an overly frenetic manner, shown up by Albert King, who succeeds them to do ‘I’ll Play The Blues For You’ with natural good-humour. Albert’s a very limited performer, but in small doses — as here — he’s fine.

Dale Warren, Isaac Hayes’ old arranger, conducts the orchestra behind Carla Thomas on a rather innocuous ‘Picking Up The Pieces’, which proves that Carla hasn’t been getting the right material since the days of ‘Gee Whiz’ and ‘I’m For You’, and she’s followed by her dad, ol’ man Rufus, who belies his 40-odd years with an outfit including shocking-pink shorts and pink Courreges-style boots.

He runs through his dance hits, ‘Breakdown’ and ‘Funky Chicken’, and his homely ebullience leads the crowd to invade the field in front of the stage. With much good humour, Rufus persuades them to return to their seats.

Then comes the man who, with Rance Allen, steals the show for me. Luther Ingram is virtually unknown in Britain (no label here has secured the rights to KoKo Records, on which all his stuff has appeared), but to me he’s a latter-day Bobby Bland: a warm, mobile voice with no frills or affectations whatever.

Luther only does one number, his big 1972 hit ‘If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don’t Want To Be Right)’ but he does it so beautifully that the intended climax of the show, Isaac Hayes, is quietly and totally upstaged.

We see Ike entering the stadium in a motorcade, flanked by a couple of Harley outriders, and on reaching the stage he goes through his whole hokey disrobing bit before doing the Shaft theme, followed by ‘Soulsville’.

This wasn’t the best part of his set — the first of three Wattstax double-albums, out in March, has a smashing extended version of ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ — but it’s partially redeemed by the cinematic editing which, during ‘Soulsville’, intercuts shots of the ghetto with the “live” footage of Isaac. The editing is done with a drummer’s sense of rhythm, but it can’t quite prevent the film ending on a slightly anti-climatic note.

Nevertheless, it’s a remarkable film, which tells us a lot about latter-day R&B and the environment which creates and nurtures it.

It’s value, particularly to those of us who’re 3,000 miles away from the action, is immense.

© Richard WilliamsMelody Maker, 10 February 1973

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