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July 3, 2014 5:03 PM   Subscribe

Wattstax [SLYT] is a 1973 documentary film about the 1972 Wattstax music festival, held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Watts riots. Featuring performances by Isaac Hayes, Albert King, Rufus and Carla Thomas, The Staple Singers, The Emotions, The Bar-Kays, and other greats of soul, R&B, and gospel, Wattstax also incorporates relatively unknown comic Richard Pryor's musings on life for black Americans in 1972, "man-and-woman-on-the-street" interviews, and audience footage. [NSFW]

Executive producer Al Bell and filmmaker Mel Stuart talk about the making of Wattstax (transcript)

Cultural critics and historians Thulani Davis, Ed Guerrero, and Craig H. Werner explore the deeper currents in the film.

There's much, much more information (with links) about the history of Watts and the people, musicians and music of Wattstax at POV.

Yes, that's The Love Boat's Ted Lange!
posted by Room 641-A (23 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
No short description of Wattstax is complete without explicitly acknowledging the old-school showmanship and astounding attire of Rufus Thomas.
posted by ryanshepard at 5:08 PM on July 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

One of my (many, many) favorite things about this movie is how the director uses the same sort of rhythmic editing as he did in Wonka. Rhythmic editing is pretty cool when the music you're using is Oompa-Loompa songs, but it's absolutely mindblowing when the music is some of the best ever recorded.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 5:17 PM on July 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Wattstax is amazing. Even if you ignore all the incredible performances, it would still be an amazing document of the fashions of a particular period in American history. The crowd shots alone are absolutely engrossing.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 5:21 PM on July 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh, dang. Currently out and about but I am SO bookmarking this to watch when I'm alone!
posted by Lexica at 5:26 PM on July 3, 2014

On more than one occasion when somebody mentioned Rufus Wainwright I said how great he was at Wattstax. Apparently there is only room in my brain for one singing Rufus and that position is already filled.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 5:28 PM on July 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

You can skip the music and just watch the Richard Prior sections.

I've seen Prior credited with saving this movie and making it a hit. At the time, he was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:47 PM on July 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

This movie embodies summer.
posted by mynameisluka at 5:48 PM on July 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

I watched this movie earlier in the year and I was struck by how this movie captured such an interesting time: it was the high water mark for the Black Power movement and its subsequent decline. The difference in how the older and young generation of black men and women taking about the world around them and their place in it and the cultural changes that were yet to come, it is truly amazing. It's a very real film with a lot of truth about a lot of baggage that people are still trying to claim and come to terms with it. I hope one day that something like this can happen again, and I'd really love to see the footage that wasn't used - that is truly a holy grail to obtain.

This movie is essential my childhood, my grandmother owned a lot of the albums featured by these artists, it's great to hear this music again.
posted by reedcourtneyj at 6:16 PM on July 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

Thank you! I stumbled on this film during a Netflix fest a couple of years ago and never would have remembered the name -- despite the obvious name.

posted by allthinky at 6:36 PM on July 3, 2014

Who is this?
posted by stbalbach at 6:56 PM on July 3, 2014

According to the introduction two seconds earlier, that's the Bar-Kays.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:02 PM on July 3, 2014

(More specifically, the guy with the white afro is Harvey Henderson of the Bar-Kays.)
posted by Sys Rq at 7:08 PM on July 3, 2014




I've always joked that Rufus Thomas is the 'avuncular James Brown' and I've always held this performance as Exhibit A in defense of that moniker.
posted by Theophrastus Johnson at 7:57 PM on July 3, 2014

anyone who isn't super familiar with the bar-kays should listen to the extended mix of holy ghost. because... yea, holy shit.
posted by emptythought at 8:01 PM on July 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

Wattstax is frequently playing in The Watts Coffee House. If you're in the area and you're looking for a traditional breakfast with a some local culture thrown in, then it's a great choice.

Also, the summer festival is still alive as are the Day of the Drum and Jazz Festivals which are really fun.
posted by rdr at 9:06 PM on July 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Wow, that was incredible. Thanks so much for posting!

Yes, that's The Love Boat's Ted Lange!

I watched the whole thing before going below the fold, and was beating my brains trying to figure out who that guy was!
posted by wallabear at 9:20 PM on July 3, 2014

Who is this?

Harvey Henderson of the Bar-Kays.
posted by ryanshepard at 9:25 PM on July 3, 2014

They had a preview for Wattstax at the movie I saw this evening at the Alamo Drafthouse. It looked really good, so I was going to check it out online when I got home. Thanks for saving me the trouble!
posted by immlass at 10:16 PM on July 3, 2014

Nthing the sentiment that Wattstax is a terrific film, well worth a watch for anyone interested in the music of the featured performers or in the culture, fashions, attitude, etc. of that time.

The bit in the OP about Richard Pryor being "relatively unknown" seemed off to me, though. (I was a teenager in 1973, and though I didn't catch Wattstax upon initial release, I did see it a couple of years later as a midnight movie.)

So I checked Pryor's IMDB page, and before Wattstax, he had appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show a total of 13 times, had made dozens more appearances on various other variety and talk shows dating back to the mid-Sixties, and hosted the pilot episode of The Midnight Special. Pryor also had a baker's dozen of acting credits by then, albeit in supporting roles, but including some fairly popular TV shows like The Mod Squad and The Partridge Family.

Point being, while Pryor wasn't as famous in 1973 as he would be just two or three years later, he definitely was a known quantity to a lot of the prospective audience. As Peter McDermott suggested, he was at least part of the reason people turned out to see the movie.
posted by Nat "King" Cole Porter Wagoner at 12:30 AM on July 4, 2014

Loved this. Watched it to honour my American friends for America Day today. Thanks for the post.
posted by salishsea at 1:05 AM on July 4, 2014

What an odd coincidence to see this post here today...I've been working my way through old episodes of Jesse Thorn's podcast ("Bullseye" nowadays, "The Sound of Young America" at the time), and I just heard an interview with Rob Bowman, who wrote a book on Stax records and did a commentary track for the 30th anniversary DVD release. He made a pretty compelling case for the film, so it's sitting high on my to-get-to list.

Here's the episode in question, might make a good introduction to film.
posted by Ipsifendus at 7:31 AM on July 4, 2014

This is beautiful. How did I not know about Wattstax before today? Thank you for providing this evening's entertainment while we hide out and bunker down to avoid the 4th of July mayhem.
posted by nacho fries at 2:06 PM on July 4, 2014

I can't believe I forgot to mention it, but if you're in the L.A. area on July 13 there's a meet-up at Watts Towers!
posted by Room 641-A at 7:01 AM on July 8, 2014

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