Getting the Shaft


A mere concert flick it’s not. Wattstax (1973) not only documents the soul-titan concert held at L.A. Coliseum seven years after Watts burned, but illuminates the rue and kinesis of a city in full Black Power flower. The Schlitz-backed, dollar-a-head extravaganza nearly called “Woodstax” was dreamed into reality by Stax Records’ Al Bell, who longed to move his waning Memphis label west at what the 100,000-plus crowd agrees is “Nation time.” With an iconic lineup including Carla Thomas, Albert King, the still-hot Staples Singers, and reigning Black Moses, Isaac Hayes, Bell got the city to provide all-black security, scored emcees Melvin Van Peebles and Jesse Jackson, and hired Willy Wonka‘s Mel Stuart to film.

Stuart captures the complex moods surrounding Jesse Jackson’s dashiki’d entreaty “Learn, Baby, Learn,” the blond-fro freakout of the Bar-Kays, the giddy field-rush to pink-caped Rufus Thomas, and, in the newly restored original ending, the grandiosity of Hayes in bare-chested chain-male regalia, rolling out “Theme From Shaft” and “Soulsville.” Spliced between musical footage (some filmed on location: The Emotions in church, Johnnie Taylor in a club) is conversation among Watts residents—about everything from riot legacy to gender-role breakdown. One woman opines that the nascent movement is allowing men to step up without fear, to assume control of “things their mother or sister or wife had to do before . . . to keep them from getting lynched.”

Providing the chorus is ghost-lighted commentary by Richard Pryor. If most performers were well past their first greatest-hits comps, Pryor was just gearing up, blowing Charlie Parker-style riffs that ricochet from police brutality (“How do you accidentally cap a nigger six times in the ass?”), to handshake culture (the latest, a twitchy pound-slap into a swerve-necked throat-slit), to jobs for ex-cons (“Ahm a license-plate-pressin’ motherfucker!”). You may laugh, but ain’t a damn thing changed.

In 1972, Pam Grier was dramatizing prison life too, and looking baaaaaad doing it. I’d say she’s the best part of the pre-Pianist Adrien Brody vehicle Love the Hard Way, except that the solidity of her game (as vice-cop nemesis to Brody’s lowlife) throws the rest of the flimsy proceedings into relief. If this adaptation of Chinese punk-lit writer Wang Shuo’s fiction doesn’t survive its Bronx trick-out, you can’t really blame Brody, whose luminous autodidact seems caught between camp and coolsville (and whose ill-advised snakeskin jacket is rivaled in ubiquity only by his bare skin—yup, sis, it’s worth a solo rental). Sexy rapport—and real nipple-kissing—with Charlotte Ayanna, whose pre-med student (and Screening Room employee!) Claire comports herself like Joey Lauren Adams on roofies, don’t trump cheesy urban-coding (car-door-slam-cue beats!) and goofy banter like “That’s why I’m not a gambling man.”