On Aug. 20, 1972, seven years after the urban upheaval in Watts, some 112,000 people came together for a daylong concert that would become known as the “black Woodstock.”
They filled Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to hear performances by Isaac Hayes, Albert King, the Staple Singers, Rufus and Carla Thomas, the Bar-Kays and more.
Staged by black-owned Stax Records, the Wattstax concert was not only a way to promote the young, Memphis soul label and its artists, but also to celebrate black culture and renewed hope for a troubled community looking to rebuild itself.
Stax President Art Bell decided to film the concert “for historical purposes.” The result: the 1973 documentary “Wattstax,” which is making its broadcast TV debut 10 p.m. ET Tuesday on the PBS series “P.O.V.” The airing coincides with the Warner Bros. DVD release of the film.
In a recent interview, Bell said he wanted “Wattstax” to be more than just another concert film.
“We needed to demonstrate that our music is an embodiment of the black experience and what goes on in the lives of our people,” he said.
Bell retained noted documentary filmmakers David Wolper and Mel Stuart, providing them, he said, “with some of the best black camera people we could find” in order to capture “the correct perspective in presenting the black experience.”
The mostly black crews scoured the street corners, barbershops, restaurants and churches of Watts, talking to people about politics, religion, music and relationships.
Capturing the feeling of the streets
But artistically, Stuart believed the film needed more of a defining perspective, “a chorus like in ‘Henry V,’ a guy who tells you the meaning of the film,” he said. “But I wanted somebody really funny, but who could really express the deep feelings of the community.”
Stax executives took Stuart to a nightclub in Watts and introduced him to Richard Pryor.
“It’s this funky club and here’s this guy on the stage and he starts talking and in two minutes I knew I was in the presence of a genius,” Stuart said of the comedian, whose acerbic social satire was widely known among blacks but had yet to cross over to mainstream audiences.
“I started talking to him,” Stuart recalled, “and I said to him, ‘Say, what do you think about women? about sex?’ or ‘What do you think about the blues, or gospel?’ Whatever. And he would wind up with a half an hour off the top of his head, out of nowhere. And we used it. It was marvelous.”
The film intersperses Pryor’s trenchant musings on the realities of life for blacks in the 1970s with man-on-the-street interviews and footage of the concert and audience.
“What you’re seeing in ‘Wattstax’ is the survival of black people,” said actor Ted Lange, who attended the concert and appears in the film as a 20-year-old unknown.
“It was a celebration of black people being black,” added Lange, who played bartender Isaac on ABC’s “The Love Boat.” “Stax Records represented a closer connection to the average man, while Motown was trying to infiltrate the establishment. Stax was rejoicing in the difference in who we are, and that’s what you see in the film,” he said.
“There was hope in that film and everything that we aspired to be,” said Hayes, who was grand marshal at the pre-concert parade. “It was a great day and it went off without incident. We didn’t realize how huge it was until it was all over and the film was cut together and shown.”
Little attentionStill, “Wattstax” didn’t garner wide media attention. And the film — considered too racy, too political and too black — failed to get the wide theatrical release that the documentary “Woodstock” received three years earlier, despite a notable showing at the Cannes Film Festival and a Golden Globe nomination.
“The problem that existed then, and to a certain extent now,” said Bell, “is that Hollywood didn’t really see where something like this was going to generate revenue, or that is was even important.”
Stax eventually went bankrupt in 1977, but Bell is proud of what the concert and film accomplished, “because here we are 30 years later talking about it again.”
“P.O.V.” executive director Cara Mertes said “Wattstax” tells us so much about black culture in the early ’70s.
“It’s an election year, and a lot of the issues that were the reason that the Wattstax concert happened are still issues today,” she said. “Also it’s a fabulous time capsule that takes us back to that moment in 1972 before so much happened in the ’80s and ’90s.”
While little has changed for the community of Watts, Lange thinks the hope of the ’70s is still alive.
“What matters is people can change things and with change comes hope,” he said. “It was as true then as it is today. This film deals with that reality.”