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Warner Home Video presents
Wattstax (1973)

"In Watts, we have shifted from 'Burn, baby, burn,' to 'Learn, baby, learn.'"
- Jesse Jackson

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: October 06, 2004

Stars: Isaac Hayes, The Staples Singers, Luther Ingram, Johnnie Taylor, The Emotions, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Albert King
Other Stars: Richard Pryor, Jesse Jackson, Ted Lange
Director: Mel Stuart

MPAA Rating: R for (language)
Run Time: 01h:43m:13s
Release Date: September 07, 2004
UPC: 085393499723
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ A-B-B+ B

DVD Review

It's one of the sad realities of Southern California urban living that Watts still hasn't recovered properly not only from the 1992 uprising that followed the Rodney King verdict, but from the 1965 uprising as well; nearly forty years have passed, and phrases like "urban renewal" and "inner city renaissance" seem not only like myths, but like cruel jokes. In 1972, with the embers of memory still burning, Stax Records put on a huge concert in the L.A. Coliseum, a celebration of African American culture; more than one participant and observer called it a sort of "black Woodstock," and this film is a document of that event. Wattstax is a curious hybrid; part concert film, part urban documentary, part social commentary. And it's that mixture that makes it particularly memorable: as a concert movie, it's not the equal of Gimme Shelter or The Last Waltz, and as a documentary, it's not a Frederick Wiseman movie, either. But it captures a particular time and place and attitude in a community that has been too long neglected, on screen and by our government.

What's likely to rope you in is the concert footage, and there are some seriously heavyweight talents on display here; the event was deliberately structured, it seems, to survey the various forms of American music with a particularly black influence. Jimmy Jones takes care of the gospel portion, with a solid rendition of Give Me That Old Time Religion; Albert King sings the blues, and there's nothing wrong with that. The Staples Singers are in good form, too, especially on Respect Yourself; Luther Ingram is in fine voice on If Loving You is Wrong, I Don't Want To Be Right. Rufus Thomas turns the place into a dance party; he's resplendent in an electric pink outfit, featuring Bermuda shorts and a matching cape. And batting cleanup, the headliner, is a man described as "the brother all of us have been waiting for, a bad, bad brother," Isaac Hayes, who closes the show with the theme from Shaft.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson opens the proceedings, and there's a visceral power to his call-and-response oratory: it's pungent stuff when 100,000 people echo him, saying, "I am somebody!" There's also a fair amount of footage of the performers arriving in magnificent outfits, many of them with huge afros and fabulous wigs; the best of these are the men in floor-length fur coats, because you really need that in Los Angeles in August.

Intercut with the music are riffs from Richard Pryor, who serves as a sort of wry Greek chorus; he's shot separately, in an empty nightclub, doing extended arias on the police, on the obstacles facing blacks in America, on drugs, on many of the themes that pervade his best standup. He's funny, of course, but even better are the scenes of Watts citizens talking about the issues facing them, in a free-ranging conversation that simply didn't get heard in white America in the early 1970s. (It still hardly ever does.) There's talk of course about 1965, and you can sense the palpable frustration and violence; one of the guys in Watts talks about the uprising as "the only way we can communicate with whitey." (What you call the events depends upon where you stand. From a distance, they were riots. Up close, they were uprisings.) The filmmakers visit with various clusters of people in Watts, in restaurants, barbershops and on the street, and the interviewees talk candidly about things like black-on-black violence, whether or not black men should date white women, and the lack of opportunity and sense of alienation that you get growing up in a neighborhood like this one. (Curiously enough, one of the featured interviewees is Ted Lange, still several years removed from television glory as Isaac, your ship's bartender.) It's a stirring look at this community, well-meaning citizens denied the opportunities that America promises in theory, and in many respects their heartfelt words are even more memorable than the great tunes from the stage at the Coliseum.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The concert footage looks a little ragged, and the print has a fair amount of scratches; but that seems due to years of neglect, not a DVD transfer issue. Not a spectacular job pictorially, but satisfactory. (It's also worth noting that, in the reaction shots of the crowd, the cameramen seem to linger over certain portions of women's anatomy. Baby got back.)

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: I'm partial to the 2.0 track, though the dispersal on the 5.0 remix works well for the concert material; it's less successful with the interview footage. Two fairly clean and well-transferred tracks.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 31 cues and remote access
2 Original Trailer(s)
3 Featurette(s)
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by Chuck D and Rob Bowman (track one); Mel Stuart, Al Bell, other members of the production team (track two)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: A strong extras package is especially helpful in providing musical and cultural context for the feature. The first commentary track is an extended conversation between Chuck D, of Public Enemy and Air America fame, and Rob Bowman, who has written a history of Stax Records; Bowman is great with background information (e.g., some of the performers had to be bumped from the show, for reasons of time, and hence some of the footage was shot on soundstages and in churches), and on what a culturally meaningful event this was: Stax insisted, for instance, that all security guards at the concert be black, and on as many black behind-the-scenes members of the film's production team as possible. Chuck D talks about the impact the film had on him, growing up in New York, and on its cultural import; Public Enemy even sampled some of the dialogue from the film, a subject that gets explored in a featurette (04m:51s) that's essentially an extension of this commentary track. The two of them slow down toward the end, but there's a lot of good stuff here.

The second track is chock full of production team members; among the best here are executive producer and Stax Records founder Al Bell, who gives an overview of the history of the label. Also on hand is director Mel Stuart, who still has some trepidation about the project, describing himself as "the only white person on the crew"; having recently completed similar duties on Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory may not have been the best preparation for this assignment. You'll also find two numbers that didn't make the final cut: Isaac Hayes singing Rolling Down a Mountain (03m:56s) and Albert King on I'll Play The Blues For You (03m:29s).

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

A documentary as important for its profile of an inner city community as for its concert footage, Wattstax is turned out on DVD with an impressive array of extras, which should help it find an audience hungry both for its music and its sociological import.


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