'Wattstax' captured the heady days of Black Power, a young Richard Pryor, and Stax Records' swan song
As its name suggests, the 1972 Wattstax festival was a self-conscious attempt to create a Woodstock for the black community. More than any event of its time, Woodstock had demonstrated the socio-political impact of popular music, and that gave Stax Records chairman Al Bell the idea to create a gathering that could simultaneously achieve three objectives: commemorate the seventh anniversary of the 1965 Watts riots, make a statement about black unity, and - perhaps most importantly - promote the artists on Bell's label.
Although it drew more than 100,000 people for a seven-hour concert at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Wattstax has taken on the aura of failure over the years. A lot of that has to do with the namesake film that documented it. While Woodstock attained mythic status through its documentary film, Wattstax became marginalized when its documentary quickly disappeared from theaters.
So it's surprising to find, more than three decades later, how well Wattstax holds up as a barometer of its time. Like Woodstock, it's less a concert film than a cultural artifact. The film's debts to the Woodstock documentary model make the early moments of the film drag, as we needlessly observe the construction of the concert stage and listen to discussions between security personnel and sound technicians.
You sense that director Mel Stuart (fresh off Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) is less interested in the concert itself than in the people of Watts. Most songs are heard in truncated form, and even then he shows us more of the crowd than the performers.
This can be frustrating (Albert King's "I'll Play the Blues For You" gets cut off just as it's heating up), but it's ultimately a wise choice. Much as the concert's organizers considered it the ultimate collection of black performers, Wattstax's focus on Stax artists, at a time when the once-mighty label was deteriorating, makes the event a narrow, incomplete snapshot of early '70s R&B. There's no Philly International, no Al Green, no Sly Stone, no Curtis Mayfield, no Motown.
What really drives this film is its set of interviews with Watts residents, shot in neighborhood barbershops, at diners, and on street corners, and the use of a still-obscure Richard Pryor to frame and comment on the issues. In what may be the frankest exchange of African-American thought ever put on film, Wattstax captures an era when the assertiveness of Black Power upped the ante on the Civil Rights Movement, infusing inner-city neighborhoods with a sense of racial solidarity.
One of the most articulate of these voices is that of Ted Lange, a young activist with an ample 'fro and a Fu Manchu mustache, who would go on to play bartender Isaac Washington on The Love Boat. From plotting the revolution to mixing drinks for Florence Henderson and Sonny Bono in the space of five years. So that's what happened to the Black Power movement. •