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  • Writer's pictureRob Freese

The Living Word- Wattstax (1973)

Get ready for not only a concert that will get you up on your feet moving, but a documentary about a place and time that seems all too familiar 50 years later. Sponsored by Stax Records out of Memphis, Tennessee, the concert featured a number of Stax artists.

Wattstax is made up of footage of the seven-hour concert held at the Los Angeles Coliseum on August 20, 1972. In between the footage we get to hear residents of Watts talk about their experiences with cops, relationships, friendships and everything between.

Richard Pryor is interviewed in a segment that is interspersed throughout the running time, seemingly performing his night club routine but really using comedy to rage about the injustices black citizens have to endure. His comments about how it's too easy for a white cop's gun to accidentally go off six times into a black man's chest resonates even more strongly today than ever before. It's what Pryor was famous for doing, breaking down the walls between people through comedy, but the bit is like a hammer blow to the forehead.

The concert begins and the Coliseum fills with Funk, R&B, Gospel, Blues and Soul and doesn't stop until the sun goes down.

Revered Jesse Jackson and Melvin Van Peebles are on hand to bring a unity to the assembled. The Black National Anthem is a powerful moment before the concert begins, where the community comes together.

Melvin Van Peebles

The performers (including footage from the concert as well as elsewhere) include The Staple Singers, The Emotions, Carla Thomas, The Bar Keys, Albert King, and Luther Ingram.

Rufus Thomas rocks the crowd out of the stands and onto the field and then encourages them all to go back to their seats. When one fellow is intent on being the center of attention, Rufus gives him what he wants until he sics the masses on him. ("Look at the brother with the upside down umbrella. He just wants some attention.")

Rufus Thomas

By nightfall a station wagon pulls onto the field, flanked by dozens of security people. Rev. Jackson announces that the man everyone has been waiting for is now on the field. A roar erupts from the crowd.

Isaac Hayes take the stage, throws off a wrap to reveal a gold chain vest and immediately goes into his Oscar winning theme from the movie Shaft. To say the place goes wild is an understatement. Hell, I went wild, hopping up out of my recliner a little too quickly and getting dizzy. Hayes follows with Soulsville.

When it originally hit theaters, the final two songs were cut and Hayes did a version of Rolling Down a Mountainside especially for the film. The film is on DVD, available from Warner Brothers, and reinstates these songs where they belong. The disc also offers the additional song as a bonus feature, along with commentaries and original and re-release trailers.

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