Wattstax is a 1973 documentary about the concert of the same name that took place in the Los Angeles Coliseum in August 1972 to commemorate the Watts riots of 1966 that served to give White American society notice that the Blacks were not the contented, happy-go-lucky folk of White imagination.
Quite a lot of the dialogue in the movie is about the position of Black people in American society after those riots, which were replicated in other parts of the US such as Detroit, and the conclusion is that some things have improved, some have degenerated and some have stayed the same.
Stax Records, the premier independent soul music label of the Sixties and early Seventies, obviously thought the riots worth celebrating anyhow, even if it were only a publicity stunt for its artists.
I remember seeing the double album of music from the event at Sygma Records and always kind of yearned to own it, though my main interest was in the inclusion of Albert King amongst the artists who performed and not so much the other acts who were only names to me. It seems that the acts that played at the event were those Stax acts that had hits at the time, hence the flavour of the festival as one big PR exercise, despite the presence of the Reverend Jesse Jackson as MC.
I have now watched the movie and I must say I am not unhappy anymore that I never owned the album of the event because by and large the brand of Seventies pop soul funk on display ain’t my cup of tea, smacking too much of major show business enterprise and not so much of the deep soul grit of the Sixties soul acts on the Stax label. Perhaps it is a sign of the increasing sophistication of the genre or just the overwhelming pop ambition of the label that had to have commercial success in order to survive, but the music in the movie is curiously flat and seems to lack energy.
There are parallels to the Woodstock movie though Woodstock celebrated White counter culture and not a race riot. Woodstock took place in the verdant countryside and Wattstax took place in an urban environment, which is probably a pretty apt comparison of the diverging worldviews of the respective groups.
One somewhat sardonically amusing similarity is the contrasting scenes of stage construction. In the Woodstock movie a team of hippie carpenters erect a massive wooden stage in the bucolic scenic beauty of upstate New York. In Wattstax, White, longhaired construction workers erect scaffolding for the stage in the middle of a football field.
The most obvious difference is that there are no hippies and no White hip, groovy cultural reference in Watts. Musical performances are separated by scenes of mostly a group of Black guys, and some women, discussing the experiences of their life and some scenes of a Richard Pryor routine on his experiences of Black life. Basically, being Black in the USA is not a particularly wonderful experience if you are on the wrong side of White ire. Then, also, the Black males are kind of bragging on themselves and the Black women, although one or two praise Black men, have a much more cynical attitude towards their men than the men would appreciate.
None of this is new to me now; I’ve read enough about the Black experience in the USA and have seen enough documentary material that echoes and repeats the same kind of things. In a way these opinions almost seem scripted, as if the speakers are acting out a stereotype of Black male views, at least from that time. Another example of this is the various views on blues. When blues are defined, the definition is the over familiar one. The young dudes are not interested in the blues anymore; the older men still have a fondness for the music of their youth.
The most interesting and intriguing aspect of the movie, for me anyhow, and in the light of watching quite a bit of documentary material of Black cultural life in the late Sixties and early Seventies, is of the fashions in clothes and hairstyles prevailing at the time. Forty years later Black, or now African-American, fashion has a completely different look than the old-school dandyism and Afri-centric looks of the time. The men wear big hats, and some of those hats are seriously big, and flared trousers, sleeveless vests, polo necks, suede jackets, Africanised loose coats, and so on. The hair is big, majorly big. The “natural,” more commonly known as the Afro, is the reigning style of the young and hip. It may be that the filmmaker selected as many Afro wearing interviewees as possible, but ii is palpably, abundantly clear that the Afro was a hairstyle of choice amongst the younger generation where the older generation stuck with the familiar derivations on the “process” and similar. I must confess, especially on young beautiful Black women, that the Afro is a sexy style, that huge round bush of hair that much have been a bitch to style in the mornings after you got out of bed. I would imagine that the African nature of the style was as mythical as many of the Black yearnings for the home continent where Blacks may have been free but not necessarily prosperous, but the visual impact of it particularly in the street scenes of Watts, does give the otherworldly effect, a differentiation from White society, that was intended by the style and the general ;philosophy and ideology of Africanistion that emerged after the Watts riots with Black power and increasing awareness of African-Americans as a people with a history and a culture that went far beyond the distorted White imposed culture of slavery days.
The movie concentrates on the street life of Watts and for this reason it seems that it was not a very upmarket neighbourhood, or even simply middle class. The streets look congested, the building somewhat faded away and dilapidated. Watts is a place time forgot and this is why the riots happened and seven years later it does indeed seem that not much has changed. The various speakers, many of whom hang out in a barbershop, are not identified and one does not know what they do for a living; for all the viewer knows, these articulate people are artists in their own right or maybe they live on welfare. They talk street. They must be from the street.
As a primer on Black consciousness and expression in Watts in 1972 the movie succeeds to a degree. As a documentary of the music, it does not have much power. Most of the acts get one tune apiece. Only the Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas and Isaac Hayes, the headliner of the event, are afforded more than that single solitary song in the movie. This is why there is little sense of a lively, vibrant and exciting musical celebration. The emphasis seems to be on the narrations of Black experience rather than the music. The blues is discussed a little bit but otherwise the talking heads have no comments on the artists appearing at the Stax event or even the event itself, as if the interviews were conducted for a different reason altogether.
I am satisfied that I’ve seen the movie at last. Unlike Woodstock, though, Wattstax is not a movie I’ll watch over and over again. There is too little music and the non-musical interludes are not interesting enough to bear repeating. Wattstax is a sociological and ethnological record of a time and a place and is invaluable for that. It can be research material for a treatise on African-American thought and discourse of the times and, perhaps in a peripheral way, be s frozen moment in time of Black popular music. It is not very entertaining at all and for a movie celebrating soul music, that is a big let down and a serious flaw.