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USA 1973/2003
Directed by
Mel Stuart
103 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars


Directed by Mel Stuart who, rather incongruously had directed Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory the previous year Wattstax is not one of great concert films but it is a fascinating document of the times and when there is music involved, it is always good.

The Watts Summer Festival, organized by Stax Records, then the premier black music label, was a concert that took place on 20 August 1972 at the Los Angeles Coliseum. The concert was intended as a show of support for Watts, a predominantly African-American community of Los Angeles that was still recovering from the infamous civil rights riots of 1965  

With a ticket price of $1.00, the concert drew a crowd of 110,000 people to see Stax Records acts such as The Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas, Albert King and headliner Isaac Hayes, who (at least in the 2003 restored version) performs the “Theme from Shaft".  Unfortunately Stuart cut much of the performance footage, partly because he was unhappy with it, partly for copyright reasons, leaving very few numbers even close to complete.  He instead inserted songs such as The Emotions’ "Peace Be Still” and  "Jody's Got Your Girl and Gone" by Johnnie Taylor that weren’t even in the concert but thankfully are excellent live performances.

Much of the film is however a priceless inventory of black culture of the time:  particularly its politics (a rousing ‘black consciousness” speech by Jesse Jackson opens the concert), its attitudes, caught in many heated conversations all recorded “on the fly”;  and its argot, much of which is still used today. So sensational are the fashions with the psychedelically patterned fabrics and outrageous costumes that one wonders why Spike Lee has not ventured into the territory.

A black Woodstock, sadly Wattstax is not but as a time capsule it’s a treat.




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