Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Wattstax captures a moment in time

Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been 84 today. Happy birthday, MLK, Jr. I wish you were here.

For an uplifting experience, watch the 2003 DVD reissue of "Wattstax," the 1973 documentary that's called by some "The Black Woodstock." It's so much more. Stax Records' president, Al Bell, sponsored the 1972 concert in Watts, not only to bring the Memphis sound and Stax roster to Los Angeles, but to commemorate the Watts Revolution  (some call it a riot) of 1965. The day-long show was a gift to the neighborhood. Tickets were only a dollar and proceeds went to nonprofit organizations. More than 100,000 people packed The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum the day after a Rams exhibition game.

The Los Angeles Police Department was asked to only employ African American police for security at the show. They complied. The hired security crew was an African American company. The film crew was African American (which included my film professor, Larry Clark, who can be heard on one of the DVD's commentary tracks). Bell, director Mel Stuart, and producer Larry Shaw, felt the resultant concert footage was merely a music film that needed to be something more. So they sent a crew out to interview people around town. Then they filmed Richard Pryor as a narrative voice for maximum stratospheric star power.

The entire film focused on this specific moment in time for the African American experience in Southern California. The Stax soul sound, the casual conversations, the voices supplied by Richard Pryor in multiple-monologue format—these echo a time in American history when change was happening and we were hopeful about it. There are so many supreme moments in this film that still resonate today, as noted by Chuck D. on the second commentary track on the DVD.

The music brings me back to my childhood when my friends and I would be in someone's garage, gathering items to play some make-believe game—house, or hotel, or restaurant. Someone's transistor radio would be on (it was always on) and into the top-40 AM mix, The Staple Singers would come on, or The Dramatics, or Isaac Hayes. Their songs cut through, straight to our inner beings. They spoke to you and told you what to look out for, what to aim for, how to be in the world. They were fabulous and I consider myself lucky to have lived during this musical era when singing from the gut was celebrated and broadcast to the world. And we would start dancing. We'd drop our plans for a few minutes and make up a dance together, like we saw every weekend on "Soul Train." I'm telling you: it was bliss.


The Staple Singers - Respect Yourself with the incomparable Mavis Staples.

Johnnie Taylor - Jody's Got Your Girl and Gone. He moves and sings in excellent form.

The Bar-Kays - Son of Shaft. I can't stop watching this.

Rufus Thomas was 55 when he performed Breakdown and Funky Chicken. A master at kindly crowd control. There is much joyful dancing, plus "the guy with the umbrella."

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