Wattstax 1972 Production Notes
(Original Stax Records / Columbia Pictures 1973 Press Release for Wattstax.)
Wattstax was a concert a very special kind of concert, given by a Black-owned recording company. For all of the summer of 72, every member of the Stax Organizations staff was involved in the benefit concert for the Southern California community of Watts climaxing the Seventh Annual Watts Summer Festival.
On August 20, more than 100,000 attended the seven-hour show in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Entertainers expenses, equipment and promotion and advertising were all paid for by the Stax Organization and the Schlitz Brewing Company. Ticket sales benefited the Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation, the Martin Luther King Hospital in Watts and future Watts Summer Festivals. At a dollar a ticket, the seven-hour music fest was the best deal in town. Any town.
What seemed like the entire Black population of Los Angeles County turned out in incredibly uninhibited clothes to spend an equally uninhibited afternoon with the largest number of Black entertainers ever assembled to contribute their talents to benefit their own people.
Wattstax has become a feature-film immortalizing not only those who came to perform, but also, those who came to witness the event and those who live in communities like Watts. There are other films about black people, but few of them have represented the real people of the national Black community until Wattstax.
Wattstax is a film about a very special kind of people, made by very special people, at a very special time. The film is based upon the music of Black America, the stuff upon which much of the recreation of the Black community is based. The rhythms and the lyrics are both explicitly defined by the method used in editing the visual aspects of this feature film.
As a song is performed, the camera moves out to the audience, then breaks away into the community and visual elaboration on the theme of the tune. And Wattstax also reaches the people . . . . . they talk about the subject too.
The opening song, "Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get," moves from the people of the community, through the peoples revolt of 1965, and back to 1972. The concert performances of songs from gospel, to pop, to jazz are used as products of the life of the people.
It soon becomes apparent what kind of an art form Black music is it is one way the people of the Black community can express their feelings on every aspect of their lives. It is the "Living Word." The songs express divergent opinions on a variety of topics; so do the people we hear from.
The film deliberately uses only one entertainer's point of view on these topics. Richard Pryor and his tragically humorous comments on life, people and situations, serve as another thread through the exposition of the many themes. And there are so many themes in the film. Wattstax is a film about people, and how very special these people are but one other thing becomes apparent as the people unfold.
The music is the message, but it is also the method. In explaining why Stax gave the concert, the Stax Organizations board chairman, Al Bell, stated, "This is one of the ways in which Stax thanks the community for its support." As the film unfolds, the viewer realizes that he does not mean merely financial support.
The songs Stax artists record are forged from the lifestyle of the community, and when they are put through a record company, the rhythms and the lyrics become a means of gaining revenue, and thus power. What the Stax Organization has done is take the pain and frustrations of the ghetto, transform it into power, and utilize that power in turning money and strength back in the community.
Wattstax takes its audiences through 300 years in history, through a six-hour concert documenting that history in music. In the framework of a two-hour film, it demonstrates the vitality of a people who have created a rich culture out of the left-overs of a nation and transformed it into power.