Wattstax

Isaac Hayes at the Wattstax concert, 1972, © Stax Records / Fantasy Inc. 2003

Squeezing in a little bit of research on the 1965 Watts Rebellion this afternoon, this article by Donna Murch introduced me to something very exciting (for the music fan in me as much as the researcher) – one of those moments when you discover something you can’t believe you weren’t already aware of. Murch writes:

perhaps the single most compelling primary source for the response of local residents to the Watts rebellion is the documentary film, Wattstax, which centers on the August 20, 1972 Wattstax music festival held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Wattstax, held on the seventh anniversary of the South Los Angeles uprising / rebellion / riots (according, very much, to your politics), was a music festival featuring Stax artists including the Bar-Kays and Isaac Hayes (apparently the concert concludes with a performance of his ‘Theme from “Shaft”‘). The documentary intersperses concert footage with interviews with Watts residents reflecting on the events of 1965. In a slightly surreal juxtaposition, the film was directed by Mel Stuart, whose most notable directing job was Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. (That leads in turn to the pleasing coincidence that Stuart worked first with Gene Wilder, and then with Richard Pryor, who introduces in Wattstax.)

It should hopefully prove to be a useful source for some first-hand accounts of South Los Angeles life in the late sixties and early seventies. But until I get hold of the DVD, I’ll have to make do with the website for the DVD release of the film, which is itself a time capsule of early 2000s web design, and offers the chance to download the trailer in low-res Real Video format – perfect for anyone still on a dial-up modem.

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Author: Alex Pavey

I'm a UCL English Literature PhD, researching Los Angeles literature and cinema across the twentieth century - particularly, although not exclusively, narratives of crime and detection.

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