Get Down with WATTSTAX

Pop Theology contributor Richard Lindsay gets funky with a capsule review of Wattstax.

On August 20, 1972, a celebration of Soul culture took place in the Los Angeles Coliseum, called Wattstax, that commemorated the seventh anniversary of the Watts riots. Organized by Stax records, a Memphis-based label who’s headliner was Isaac Hayes, it included performances by Hayes, The Staple Singers, Albert King, The Bar-Kays, and a dozen or so other label stars. A documentary of the event, which has become known as the “Black Woodstock,” came out in 1973, featuring performances from the festival, as well as interviews with people in the Watts neighborhood about the state of “blackness,” and commentary by Richard Pryor. The special edition DVD of the film is available on Warner Home Video.

The documentary demonstrates the evolution from gospel to soul, as the film begins with the “Black National Anthem: Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and the Rev. Jesse Jackson leading an early call-and-response of “I am – Somebody.” The music starts with gospel performances, including a moving performance by The Emotions of “Peace, Be Still” in a local church. It progresses into gospel cross-over with the The Staple Singers and their funky empowerment song, “Respect Yourself.” The hyper-sexed, hyper-camp Soul extravaganza gets fully underway with the flamboyant Bar-Kays, winning best-dressed in white-dyed Afros, gold chains and bangles across the chest, and floor-length fringe. The closing performance comes from Black Moses himself, Isaac Hayes, sporting a gold-chain vest and basking in his entrance to the fat funkiness of the “Theme from Shaft.”

Features of the 30th Anniversary Special Edition include double commentaries with director Mel Stuart and Isaac Hays, and Chuck D and music historian Rob Bowman, extra footage of performances by Albert King and Isaac Hayes, and the 1973 trailer.

Can you dig it? I knew you could.