Blue Movies: Wattstax

Released: 1973

Directed by Mel Stuart (of Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory), this film captures the Wattstax concert that took place at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on August 20, 1972, in front of a 100,000-plus audience.

The brainchild of West Coast Stax executive Forrest Hamilton and Stax co-owner Al Bell, it cost a dollar to get in and the film acts as the best of Stax Records live (The Staple Singers, Albert King, The Bar-Kays, Carla Thomas, Isaac Hayes, Rufus Thomas and Kim Weston all feature on the bill) and a commemoration of what’s been dubbed the ‘black Woodstock’.

Richard Pryor described it better as “a soulful expression of the black experience”, and seven years after the Watts race riots it’s a celebration of black pride – as the Reverend Jesse Jackson asserts in his reading of William H Borders’ poem I Am Somebody.

Social context is provided with vox pops from Watts residents and Pryor discussing race and gender. But ultimately the draw of the film is those live acts. Rufus Thomas, in pink hot pants and white boots, brings the house down with a storming Do The Funky Chicken, replete with arm-flapping dance moves. Kim Weston delivers a stirring Star Spangled Banner and Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing (known as the black American national anthem), The Staple Singers raise the rafters with Respect Yourself, Isaac Hayes has everyone uproarious with Theme From Shaft.

The film never got a wide cinematic release, but it was shown at the Cannes film festival and received a 1974 Golden Globe nomination. Today, it’s seen as one of the best concert films ever./o:p