Jun 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson


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At the time, it was dubbed “the black Woodstock.” On August 20, 1972, more than 110,000 people — probably 98% of them African-Americans — streamed into the Los Angeles Coliseum for an all-day concert featuring a slew of artists from the Memphis-based Stax Records label, including the Staple Singers, Albert King, Rufus Thomas and one of the era's reigning soul kings, Isaac Hayes. Jesse Jackson, resplendent in a colorful dashiki and sporting a huge afro, was the concert's emcee. The event, called Wattstax, was a benefit fundraiser for the depressed Watts area of L.A., which had been torn apart by riots seven years earlier. It was captured on film by an all-black crew helmed by white director Mel Stuart, who is best known today for the film he directed a year earlier, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Wally Heider's remote truck did the 16-track concert recording.

But the 1973 film Wattstax was more than just a parade of funky groups gettin' down in the sweltering L.A. heat. Stuart wanted the film to be more — to reflect the views of people in the black community — so in the weeks following the concert, he had documentary crews roaming the streets, shops and churches of Watts, and he interspersed footage of the people they encountered between the film's live performances. He also punctuated the film with hilarious bits from an up-and-coming comic named Richard Pryor, who's seen doing stand-up in a tiny L.A. club.

Wattstax opened the Cannes Film Festival in 1973 and was nominated for a Golden Globe award (for Best Documentary) in 1974. The film “did very well in black neighborhoods,” Stuart told an interviewer, but it had all but disappeared by the following year. “A lot of black people have seen it, but it generally hasn't made it into the mainstream because of the [raw] language. It's become a sort of cult thing because it probably is, in all honesty, the best concert film about black music that's ever been made.” Indeed, the film is a wonderful time capsule of an era when there was a deep social consciousness emerging in black music, and Black Pride was on the rise all over the country: “It was the magic moment before crack hit [the inner cities] and everybody thought…something good was going to come,” Stuart said.

Now, Wattstax is being re-released theatrically this month, with a DVD due in the fall. A CD of Isaac Hayes' complete set is already in stores, and a box set containing nearly every song performed over the course of the seven-hour concert will be out soon. The restoration of the film and the soundtrack, at the Saul Zaentz Film Center/Fantasy Studios complex in Berkeley, Calif., was a complicated and time-consuming task, but well worth the effort and expense: There's never been anything quite like Wattstax.

Our story begins on the audio side. Because the Wattstax film has long enjoyed cult status in England (with old monoprints playing midnight showings, etc.), Roger Armstrong, who runs Ace Records there, approached Fantasy Records — which owns the post-1968 Stax catalog — about putting out a box set of Wattstax music. About 60 songs had been recorded in the Heider truck on 16-track 2-inch tape, some of which made it onto a pair of live two-record sets that came out shortly after the original film.

“The original mixes were not very good,” says Fantasy Studios engineer Stephen Hart, who remixed the original Wattstax tapes, produced the music for CD release and delivered mixes to the soundstage for the film's re-release. “I'm sure [the original mixers] were very, very rushed because they probably wanted to coincide with the film, which was on a big rush, too. There was lots of room for improvement, and certainly [in 1973] they didn't have the tools to fight the kind of problems they had. Those were not the days of multiple front-of-house mixers. They had one console that was constantly being re-plugged and switched, and as a result, there were incredibly deep busing errors. Snare drums would end up on vocal tracks, background vocals would end up nowhere. Guitars would be summed with a hi-hat. At this point, we'll never know exactly what was going on onstage during the show, but I suspect what would happen is a percussionist would come on and he'd grab a background vocal mic. Or a singer would walk up to the drum set and take the hi-hat mic; stuff like that. Then they'd put the mic down and maybe then it got used for something else. So it was all confused. The tapes were not uniform at all. With all the inherent problems with the tapes, it was definitely a Pro Tools kind of world to sort it out, just to make things linear.”

Around the time Hart was beginning to investigate the multitrack masters for Ace, film editor Tom Christopher, who had helmed the picture restoration of the Star Wars trilogy, Amadeus (see Mix, March 2002) and other films, was making another discovery, independently: At a Warner Bros. film-storage facility in Burbank, Calif., he stumbled across a huge pile of film boxes of Wattstax material. “Originally, Warner's said, ‘We have a lot of stuff here, but we don't have any masters. We just have the outtakes,’” Christopher recalls. “I said, ‘Let me come down and see it.’ So I went down there and I stayed in this cold vault for two-and-a-half hours and started going through these boxes. It was all just sitting on a pallet on the floor; they hadn't checked it into the facility yet. So I was opening boxes and taking extensive notes on everything I saw, and what I found was the camera original for the film, which was astounding to me. And I also found out it was a 16mm show. What Columbia [the original releasing company] had was a 35mm blowup negative; they had considered that the original. So this was a big deal.”

As he went through the boxes, many of them labeled poorly or not at all, Christopher made an exciting find: the “lost” final reel of Wattstax, or at least the components thereof. You see, when the film originally had its premiere at L.A.'s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1973, it concluded with Isaac Hayes performing “Theme From Shaft” (his big hit of the day) and another moving tune from that film called “Soulsville,” which almost acted as a summation of many of the themes addressed in Wattstax. But right after the premiere, MGM Studios, which controlled the rights to the music in Shaft, threatened a million-dollar lawsuit if the film (which cost just $480,000 to make) was released with those songs in it. Stax, which was in a fairly shaky financial state at the time, backed down in the face of the suit and replaced the footage with a different Hayes song — “Rolling Down a Mountainside” — shot six months after Wattstax on a soundstage, then intercut with audience shots to make it look like it was from the L.A. concert. (Another song filmed on a soundstage and added later was Luther Ingram's “If Lovin' You Is Wrong, I Don't Want to Be Right,” one of the true musical highlights of the film and in mono, no less!) As a result, no one since the premiere had ever seen the film as intended by director Stuart.

“I discovered it on an optical soundtrack negative,” says Christopher. “And that really became the basis for the restoration. I started from the sound and worked backward. It was a full reel, and all it said on it was something like ‘Goldwyn Reel 6 Soulsville.’ Well, ‘Soulsville’ didn't mean anything to me at the time because I was looking for ‘Shaft,’ which I had read was part of the end of the film. I had thought only one song had been taken out.

“So I had a guide to make the reel, but only in audio. There was no saved print that we know of. But all the negative pieces existed. The 16mm cut A-B rolls had most of the shots in them, but not all of them, because they did a lot of the effects work in 35 mm. So there were holes in the 16. When I printed the 16, the picture would go out at various times. There was no Richard Pryor, and a whole bunch of other stuff was missing. Of course, there was no paperwork on anything, so there was a lot of detective work involved just figuring out where everything was and what everything was.”

Apple's Final Cut Pro editing software with Cinema Tools was used to build the picture for the reel in sync with the music, piece by piece. Nevertheless, Christopher managed to put together the final sequence, complete with some rapid-fire cuts on the beat during “Shaft.” “I tried not to change anything,” he says. “It had been cut that way. I didn't make any aesthetic decisions.”

When Christopher learned that Stephen Hart was getting ready to begin transferring the multitracks into Pro Tools for the Ace box set project, he “convinced Stephen to lock it to the 60Hz pilot tone [track 16 on the master], which would give me film sync, even though at that point, there was no film project and nobody needed to listen to me. I convinced them it was a worthy thing to do. So ‘Track 16’ was my mantra: ‘Are you locked to sync?’ And they actually redid a couple of transfers where they'd forgotten to do it. They were great; they did a wonderful job.”

After baking the 16-track tapes, Hart transferred them into Pro Tools and went to work mixing. Between the 60Hz pilot tone and the two tracks of audience on the tapes, there were only 13 tracks of music, which meant Hart was somewhat limited in what he could do in the mix, because frequently, instruments and/or vocals were ganged on a single track.

“I ended up using a lot of processing,” he says. “I did basically everything that's available in Pro Tools, with the exception of tuning; I didn't touch any of that. It could have used it, too, but with the amount of bleed there was, it would have been very difficult. You'd be tuning the ambience, and the next thing you know it sounds weirder than it did out of tune. So there was plenty of EQ'ing. The whole project jumped back and forth between a regular [Pro Tools] MIX system and an HD system, which had some different tools. I set things up so it was very interchangeable: I could go in any studio [at Fantasy] and plug in. I was still breaking out to an SSL console; it wasn't all inside Pro Tools. But I did it as stems, so the whole analog setup would be very simple and fast.

“When I was working on it, I kept wanting it to be a wider image,” Hart continues. “It's stereo, but it's a mono-ish stereo due to the fact that the bleed was so bad that if I got really wide with a lot of things, you'd begin to really notice the bleed. There were other weird things. I think there were times when mics would get kicked out of the way or they'd be way off-axis. Then there was a whole string section that was on a little side stage and it had P.A. monitors that were usually louder than the musicians were; they were not close-miked at all. That was really a fight; I had to dive deep to pull some of that stuff up. I had to do some very picky editing to cut out as much [monitor noise] as I could and still maintain some kind of fluid sound, because it would get choppy with all the cuts. I used a lot of EQ, a lot of filtering. And sometimes there just wasn't anything you could do, or the tools only made it worse. Unfortunately, with Isaac [Hayes], his performance was really good but it's one of the worst recordings. I think people must have been wiped out after a long day. I had to a do a lot of work on that, but it ended up okay.”

Meanwhile, upstairs from Fantasy at the Saul Zaentz Film Center, the film restoration had taken on a life of its own, even though there was no formal financial backing for what was, at the time, entirely speculative work; there was no guarantee that Wattstax would ever be re-released. There was enough interest, however, to allow Film Center staff to work on the project and to pay Christopher, a freelancer. From September to December of 2002, intensive work on the film's soundtrack kicked into gear, with Hart as the stereo and surround music mixer, Michael Kelly the principal sound editor, and Jim Austin (chief engineer at the facility) the lead mixer on the show, working with Hart and doing dialog and effects. Around this time, Christopher departed to work on a PBS documentary about gourmet food maven Alice Waters, but he continued to check in every morning and to offer his expertise. He would return in December, which became crunch time.

Michael Kelly notes, “Like a lot of projects, the ambition and the scope of what we did with the restoration started out small and inevitably got as big as it could get. In part, we did a complete restoration on the audio because there were not adequate masters that survived. We did a thorough search and found no stems, basically. We had started out thinking we were just going to replace the music and we'll use the old soundtrack for the dialog. Well, it's not that easy, because there are places where the music overlaps with the talking heads. So then we thought, ‘Let's see what's going on with the quarter-inch. We've got to at least find the handles.’ So Tom found all the quarter-inch audio. I wasn't expecting how much the film would be improved by going back in and replacing all that dialog. Now, you can really understand the dialog of these people in the streets, captured with a single boom microphone.”

There was limited documentation about what was on the quarter-inch mono Nagra reels that were the source of the nonmusic portions of the film. So Anna Geyer of the Film Center watched the film over and over again, creating a database and memorizing the dialog. Then she started listening to all the quarter-inch rolls, and, Kelly says, “whenever she heard any line or section of dialog that she recognized from the film, she'd load it into Pro Tools. So basically, all the dialog in the film was rebuilt by hand. Unfortunately, there were a few sections where there was no quarter-inch. As is always the case with restoration, you're so thankful for all the things you find, but you never find everything, and for some reason, out of the 100-plus rolls of quarter-inch that they rolled on this film, there were two rolls missing. Now, every time I watch this film, I wince when those four shots where we didn't have the quarter-inch come up and the sound isn't quite up to the rest of the film.” In the cases where they didn't have the quarter-inch, they pulled the pieces off of mag or optical film and put them into a Sonic Solutions No Noise to clean them up. The Richard Pryor material only existed as a dupe of the master tapes.

Not surprisingly, given the variety of settings in the film and motley materials he was given to work with, Jim Austin faced quite a challenge when it came to developing a good surround mix for the film. Rather than creating some over-hyped spatial environment for the dialog/street portions, he elected to have all that information appear solely in mono in the center channel. For the music, Stephen Hart “took the 20 songs that were going to be in the film and I brought them back in here and made stems, which ended up wider than the original because I was stereo-izing some program. Then I had ambience that I created for the record. The audience, which was on two tracks, was always discrete. Then there were plates and 480s that I built some ambiences with that I printed to separate stems. In the end, it was 24 tracks wide from a 16-track tape.”

Austin then took the stems and, “built them out, so to speak, into the 5.1-channel film space,” he says. “I didn't use any low-frequency effect or subwoofer channel on the film because it didn't seem to fit the genre that we had, and I didn't want to manufacture it.”

Most of what appears in the rears of the surround mix is audience and reverb. “It was easy enough to build a good stadium sound with the modern reverberation tools we have right now,” Austin says. “That was one of the easier things. But you have to start with a good stage sound, and that was hard because there was so much leakage, and sometimes it was constructive and sometimes it was quite hampering: You'd get bass cancellation sometimes from different tracks.”

“There was a lot of forensics involved,” Kelly adds. “The thing about restoring the soundtrack is that we had no map, except for what we could hear. For the 5.1, we didn't want to create new things. We had to figure out: Is that the crowd mics that were live, or did they do additional editing and add the crowd tracks later? Which they did do. On the crowd tracks — applause, bubbling — sometimes we cut those in two stereo pair sets. I would take the same track, have it bubbling in front and then a version of that offset bubbling in back.

“But there are also specific effects. When Jesse Jackson introduces the Black National Anthem [“Lift Every Voice and Sing”] and then [Kim Weston's] singing it, there's a shot where Jesse has his fist up in the air and then he takes it down and claps. Well, we had to Foley that clap. There's another spot where the singer in The Bar Kays picks up a cowbell and starts hitting it, but it wasn't on any of the mics, so I went to Guitar Center and bought a cowbell. A lot of the work was like the Tasmanian Devil: whatever was right in front of you that had to get done to prep for the mix, we flew through it to do it any way we could.”

Even with the team working hard day after day, “From week to week, it looked like the project might get shut down because there wasn't enough interest and money to finish it,” Kelly says. “It was just little baby steps week to week that allowed it to eventually blossom.” The team put together a videocassette of the film, including the “new” ending, and Film Center facilities manager Scott Roberts sent it around to various people and studios trying to drum up interest in the project.

“We had also made a DVD that compared the new ending and the old ending, so it was an analysis tool if you wanted it,” Christopher says. “We sent those around and nobody was calling us back. But we kept trying, and suddenly Sundance [Film Festival] called back and said, ‘We want this film. We're going to play it, but not in competition.’”

Instead, Sundance gave Wattstax a special designation as a historically significant film, worthy of inclusion in the Sundance Archive at UCLA. That bit of news was all it took for Sony, which had the theatrical rights to the film (through its ownership of Columbia Pictures) to bankroll the remainder of the restoration at the Film Center. “Of course, it's what we all wanted,” Christopher says, “but it was impossible: It was December 9th when we got the P.O., and Sundance wanted a print by December 30th. Well, we managed to find a great lab — Monaco [in San Francisco] — that wanted the project and would do it quickly. And then we all worked like crazy. My assistant editor, Tim Fox, and I were cutting the 35mm work print on Christmas Eve. The day after Christmas, it was being neg cut. We had our first print out of the lab on the 6th of January; we delivered [to Sundance] around the 10th or the 14th. We were late, but it got there.”

And, predictably, Wattstax was very well-received at Sundance. At press time, the film is slated to play at the late-April opening of the new Stax Museum in Memphis, and a limited theatrical release was planned for early June. At the Film Center, there was still debate about the DVD that will likely come out in the fall. What sort of extras might there be? More from Albert King's incendiary set? The “old” ending, with Hayes lip-synching “Rolling Down the Moun-tainside”? Those decisions were still up in the air. But the really hard work — restoring this fascinating slice of black Americana — was done, and Wattstax can now be enjoyed by new generations of viewers and take its rightful place among the great concert films.

Below, more classic shots of Stax stars, taken from the film.
(courtesy www.wattstax.com)

The Bar-Kays, getting their groove on

Jesse Jackson onstage

Shaft himself, closing the show

Mavis Staple and family show some soul

Showing some Emotions

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