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It’s Always A Struggle

March 4th, 2009 · 4 Comments

Wattstax (1973)
Directed by Mel Stuart
Produced by Stax Records/ Wolper Productions
Running time: 102 minutes

Wattstax 1973 poster Wattstax DVD cover

Sunday, August 20, 1972. Memphis-based Stax Records descended on the L.A. Coliseum with most of their recording roster – Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers, The Bar-Kays, Rufus Thomas and many more – for an eight hour concert to benefit the annual Watts Summer Festival, the observation of the “rebellion” that burned through the community only seven years previous, claiming 34 lives. Passing through the turnstiles were 112,000 people, the largest assembly of African Americans at a non-civil rights event up to that point in history. To record the day, Stax contracted award winning documentary producer David Wolper, and under the direction of Mel Stuart, supplemented the groundbreaking concert with “man on the street” interviews with the people of South Central L.A. and staged performances in the community. Narrating the film and providing his own commentary was a rising comedian named Richard Pryor.

Production history

In the early 1970s, a record company in Tennessee was looking to expand. Cinematographer Larry Clark recalled, “Stax Records – you know – they came out of Memphis and they were kind of like this underground company. They didn’t have the same kind of promotional machine that other record companies had like Motown. But people did identify with the type of music that Stax was putting out there. They could identify with it culturally. Motown was more crossover, whereas Stax was really that down home kind of sound. The mindset of the African American community across the country had changed and we were at that place where Stax Records was. People were lookin’ more towards the African roots, more towards our musical roots. That’s just where we were politically, culturally.”

Wattstax 1973 Jesse Jackson

Concert promoter Forest Hamilton was in Los Angeles to establish a film division – Stax West – when he met writer Richard Dedeaux. Hamilton’s collaboration with Dedeaux on a movie script produced the idea of a benefit concert. Stax president Al Bell seized on donating the proceeds to the Watts Summer Festival, observing the anniversary of the “rebellion” – as it was known in the community – that ignited in the summer of 1965. Most of Stax’s recording roster signed on to perform for free and Bell booked the Los Angeles Coliseum. Stax underwrote most of the expenses and Schlitz Brewing Company stepped up as sponsor. With tickets going for $1, the 90,000-seat arena – home field of the Los Angeles Rams – completely sold out. Wattstax was on its way to becoming the biggest assembly of African Americans ever in one place for a non-civil rights event.

Al Bell recalled, “As it evolved though, the idea emerged, well, you know, when we pull this off, we’ll have pulled something off that hasn’t been done before, but we really ought to consider doing a documentary. Well, then if we do a documentary, what kind of documentary should it be? Well, it should be about something that demonstrates to the world that the music that we sing is a reflection of what goes on in our lives and in our lifestyle. We gotta pull that off. I told Forest, ‘I want to go and find out who the finest documentary producer is in Hollywood.’ We want the very best. And he came back and said: ‘David Wolper.’” The contract between Stax and Wolper gave the producer creative control, with one major exception: Stax retained the right of approval on content relating to Black relationships or feeling, as well as the narration and music contained in the picture.

Wattstax 1973 Richard Pryor

A budget of $480,000 was set. To direct, New Yorker Mel Stuart was brought into the project. “I got involved with Wattstax because I had done many films for Dave Wolper. I had just finished directing Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and was at liberty. I had some mixed feelings, because I felt I wasn’t that familiar with the Black experience, so this was the condition. I met the staff of Stax: Larry Shaw (who became co-producer of the picture with me), Forest Hamilton and others and said, this is the way I want to do it. I am the only White person on the creative staff. Everything will be siphoned through your feelings, ‘cause I don’t know enough about the Black experience. I can interpret it, but I don’t know it.”

Isaac Hayes recalled, “I thought about the commemoration of what happened, with the Watts riots. We were not celebrating the devastation that went on there. We were commemorating lives that were lost and the coming together of a people that had been suppressed. That’s why all the violence broke out. We were suppressed. You know, police brutality, all those things added up. All that pent up frustration from a people, it just came out. So, somebody struck a match. I don’t know how it started. But I think the society we were livin’ in bred that, gave rise to it. You know, you can suppress a person for so long and they will rise up.” To keep tensions cool, Al Bell lobbied the city to keep the LAPD out of the stadium. Security was all Black and was not permitted to carry firearms. With an estimated 112,000 turning out for the eight-hour concert, no violent incidents were reported.

Wattstax 1973 The Bar-Kays

Reviewing the concert footage, Stuart was disappointed with what he found. “It was like a newsreel, a performance. And I knew we needed more. I knew for the film to be important, it just couldn’t be a record of a concert. And I came to the realization that it’s not the music, it’s how the people feel about the music that’s important, how the people feel about their lives that’s important, if this film is going to have any substance.” Stuart, Larry Shaw and Forest Hamilton turned to the Stax acts unable to make the concert and staged them performing throughout Watts. The Emotions did a gospel song at a small church. Johnnie Taylor tore the roof off The Summit Club singing “Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone”. Little Milton was filmed in the shadow of the Watts Towers lip synching “Walking the Back Streets and Crying”.

The filmmakers still didn’t feel they had a movie. Larry Clark recalled, “So then we had this assignment: go out into the community and ask people about the blues. So we went out and we found people on the stoop, we found people sitting in front of grocery stores, wherever we could, and we started asking about the blues. Part of it was we would start talkin’ to people, all right, and, just talkin’. Camera’s not even rollin’. Eventually, you kind of get a sense – when people are gettin’ relaxed – and then very quietly you turn on the camera, so that the person talking is not actually aware that you’re shooting.” In search of a narrator – someone to serve as the voice of the community – Forest Hamilton took Mel Stuart to a club to a see a comedian named Richard Pryor. The next night, Stuart returned with a camera crew and sat down at the bar for two hours with Pryor, who gave an improvisational tour-de-force on racial relations, the police or whatever else flew through his mind.

Wattstax 1973 Isaac Hayes

Columbia Pictures agreed to distribute Wattstax and held a world premiere February 1973 in Los Angeles. The film climaxed with Isaac Hayes performing his monumental hit “Theme From Shaft”, and “Soulsville”, songs from the movie Shaft. MGM immediately filed a lawsuit. In order for Hayes to appear in the movie at all, he was called back to pen a new song – “Rolling Down the Mountainside” – and lip synch it on a soundstage, as if it had been performed at Wattstax. The original ending was buried for 30 years. Hayes recalled, “I was angry. I was angry at MGM. Why would they do that? Makin’ money’s one thing, monetarily speaking, but it would have been a contribution to allow that to go just like it was, ‘cause it meant so much to so many people. It was insensitive of them to do that. But – you know – they had control of it. So I don’t know who made that decision, I don’t know if attorneys or what. Again, they were representing that same kind of suppression that caused them riots in the first place. It’s always a struggle.”

Wattstax was generally dismissed in the mainstream press. Vincent Canby, the New York Times: “I don’t mean that the film is in any way fake; it just has the air of something too carefully laid out in advance. It’s so busy being glossy and optimistic that it doesn’t even allow its performers time to create on screen a measure of the excitement they might have created in person.” Though Wattstax was invited to open the Cannes Film Festival in May 1973 and according to Stuart “did very well in Black neighborhoods”, within a year, the film was a memory. An arcane financing deal dividing the film’s rights between Columbia and Fantasy Inc. – the record label that purchased much of the Stax library in 1977 – prevented Wattstax from being broadcast on TV or released on VHS. For decades, Wattstax practically disappeared.

Wattstax 1973 Rufus Thomas

In 2001, film restoration expert Tom Christopher was on the Warner Bros. lot working on a director’s cut of Amadeus. He stumbled into a palette of boxes that hadn’t even been checked into the film storage facility and discovered the original 16mm negative of Wattstax. After some investigating, Christopher also tracked down the missing ending. Fantasy Inc. joined with Columbia and Warner Bros. to restore Wattstax to its original theatrical condition, cleaning the negative and remastering the soundtrack. A 35mm print of Wattstax: The Special Edition screened at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival and was re-released in 12 theaters that June. A long overdue DVD emerged later that year. Fantasy facility manager Scott Roberts commented, “We realized that the performances were really brilliant and quite a cultural find. So we coordinated with Warner Brothers and Columbia to get the film seen by the public as it was originally intended. The feedback we get is that it’s an important cultural document for African-Americans. It was a major event.”


To get an idea of how epic the lineup of performers assembled at the L.A. Coliseum in August 1972 was, Isaac Hayes is nearly blown off the stage twice; first by cosmic bad assedness of The Bar-Kays laying down “Son of Shaft” and later in the afternoon, Rufus Thomas – the world’s oldest teenager – busting out “The Breakdown” and “Funky Chicken” and having enough energy left to coax hundreds of festival goers off the football field and back into the stands. It’s one hell of a show, but what makes Wattstax one of the top five concert films of all time is how poetically it weaves the music into the real world of the community surrounding the venue. Interspersed between the delicious drum beats and funky rhythm guitars, the filmmakers give the people a voice. Opening up about their experiences – hopes, fears, relationships – is more even more powerful than what takes place on the stage.

© Joe Valdez

Wattstax 1973

Official Site Wattstax – The Special Edition Restoration

DGA Interview with Wattstax Director Mel Stuart

“Loud and proud” By James Maycock. The Guardian, July 20, 2002

“Wattstax back: Forgotten film revived with slot in Sundance”
By Tommy Perkins. Memphis Business Journal, January 17, 2003

“Sound For Wattstax Concert Film”
By Blair Jackson. Mix, June 2003

Wattstax (30th Anniversary Special Edition)
. Warner Home Video (2003)

Tags: Concert · Cult favorite · Documentary · Music · No opening credits

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Scott Roberts // Mar 6, 2009 at 9:30 am


    My name is Scott Roberts—I’m one of the people you quoted in your review.

    Nice review; you did a fantastic job pulling together materials from a variety of sources (a few of which I provided some of the copy) and making it all sound fresh and new.

    When Warners transferred the picture from film to video, along with a letterboxed version for analog broadcast release, we made a high-def 16×9 master for future BluRay DVD and high-def broadcast release. I hope sometime over the next few years the title gets released in high-def. It looks better in high-def than it does in 35mmm projected film.

    Wattstax is a unique film experience. Thanks for bringing it to your readers attention!


  • 2 Kimberly // Mar 6, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    This is such a great, great film and I enjoyed your write-up! As I’ve mentioned over at my own blog and at Cinedelica, I think Wattstax is easily one of the greatest concert films ever made. Maybe even THE best due to the way it examines the culture around the music.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Mar 6, 2009 at 6:17 pm

    Scott: Let me thank you for not only stopping by, but helping restore this film and getting it re-released. If not for the intervention of Fantasy, Wattstax might have stayed buried in a vault somewhere. Music lovers, film lovers and people who need to know their history are all better off for being able to see Wattstax, whether in high-def or even analog video. Much respect to your fine efforts, sir.

    Kimberly: Martin Scorsese may be the best director ever to make a concert film (The Last Waltz), but Wattstax is the superior movie. Instead of worshiping the musicians, it explores what the music means to the lives of the every day people in the community and is a much more powerful document as a result. Thanks for commenting!

  • 4 twinspan // Mar 12, 2012 at 4:08 pm

    Great article about a great movie.

    For anyone who feels Wattstax was not just great but unique, they should check out “Our Latin Thing”, made the year before Wattstax by Leon Gast (of “When We Were Kings” fame) documenting the concert of the Fania All-Stars. Not only does it unite all the great artists from one label (practically every single singer and musician involved in the birth of salsa), not only does it show the culture and life in neighbourhoods that gave birth to the music (the barrio of Spanish Harlem), but also these great artists are *together*.

    Wattstax had a great artist come on, do a couple of numbers, and go off. Then afterwards, another. The concert of the Fania All-Stars in Our Latin Thing had greats like Ray Barretto, Cheo Feliciano, Larry Harlow, Willie Colón, Hector Lavoe ad infinitum all performing *together*, on stage at the same time: riffing off each other, inspiring each other, and outdoing each other.

    An article about it here:

    Getting back on topic, Wattstax is definitely an event movie: clear your schedule, get round some friends into great music, press play and have a great time!

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