WattstaxThe great soul. music concert film of the 1970s is re-released in surround sound so a new generation can listen to Isaac Hayes and Rufus Thomas and countless others. Recording and mixing techniques a 6/01/2003 8:00 AM Eastern
At the time, it was dubbed “the black Woodstock.” OnAugust 20, 1972, more than 110,000 people — probably 98% of themAfrican-Americans — streamed into the Los Angeles Coliseum for anall-day concert featuring a slew of artists from the Memphis-based StaxRecords label, including the Staple Singers, Albert King, Rufus Thomasand one of the era's reigning soul kings, Isaac Hayes. Jesse Jackson,resplendent in a colorful dashiki and sporting a huge afro, was theconcert's emcee. The event, called Wattstax, was a benefit fundraiserfor the depressed Watts area of L.A., which had been torn apart byriots seven years earlier. It was captured on film by an all-black crewhelmed by white director Mel Stuart, who is best known today for thefilm he directed a year earlier, Willy Wonka and the ChocolateFactory. Wally Heider's remote truck did the 16-track concertrecording.
But the 1973 film Wattstax was more than just a parade offunky groups gettin' down in the sweltering L.A. heat. Stuart wantedthe film to be more — to reflect the views of people inthe black community — so in the weeks following the concert, hehad documentary crews roaming the streets, shops and churches of Watts,and he interspersed footage of the people they encountered between thefilm's live performances. He also punctuated the film with hilariousbits from an up-and-coming comic named Richard Pryor, who's seen doingstand-up in a tiny L.A. club.
Wattstax opened the Cannes Film Festival in 1973 and wasnominated for a Golden Globe award (for Best Documentary) in 1974. Thefilm “did very well in black neighborhoods,” Stuart told aninterviewer, but it had all but disappeared by the following year.“A lot of black people have seen it, but it generally hasn't madeit into the mainstream because of the [raw] language. It's become asort of cult thing because it probably is, in all honesty, the bestconcert film about black music that's ever been made.” Indeed,the film is a wonderful time capsule of an era when there was a deepsocial consciousness emerging in black music, and Black Pride was onthe rise all over the country: “It was the magic moment beforecrack hit [the inner cities] and everybody thought…something goodwas 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 isalready in stores, and a box set containing nearly every song performedover the course of the seven-hour concert will be out soon. Therestoration of the film and the soundtrack, at the Saul Zaentz FilmCenter/Fantasy Studios complex in Berkeley, Calif., was a complicatedand time-consuming task, but well worth the effort and expense: There'snever been anything quite like Wattstax.
Our story begins on the audio side. Because the Wattstax filmhas long enjoyed cult status in England (with old monoprints playingmidnight showings, etc.), Roger Armstrong, who runs Ace Records there,approached Fantasy Records — which owns the post-1968 Staxcatalog — about putting out a box set of Wattstax music.About 60 songs had been recorded in the Heider truck on 16-track 2-inchtape, some of which made it onto a pair of live two-record sets thatcame out shortly after the original film.
“The original mixes were not very good,” says FantasyStudios engineer Stephen Hart, who remixed the original Wattstaxtapes, produced the music for CD release and delivered mixes to thesoundstage for the film's re-release. “I'm sure [the originalmixers] were very, very rushed because they probably wanted to coincidewith the film, which was on a big rush, too. There was lots of room forimprovement, and certainly [in 1973] they didn't have the tools tofight the kind of problems they had. Those were not the days ofmultiple front-of-house mixers. They had one console that wasconstantly being re-plugged and switched, and as a result, there wereincredibly deep busing errors. Snare drums would end up on vocaltracks, background vocals would end up nowhere. Guitars would be summedwith a hi-hat. At this point, we'll never know exactly what was goingon onstage during the show, but I suspect what would happen is apercussionist would come on and he'd grab a background vocal mic. Or asinger would walk up to the drum set and take the hi-hat mic; stufflike that. Then they'd put the mic down and maybe then it got used forsomething else. So it was all confused. The tapes were not uniform atall. With all the inherent problems with the tapes, it was definitely aPro Tools kind of world to sort it out, just to make thingslinear.”
Around the time Hart was beginning to investigate the multitrackmasters for Ace, film editor Tom Christopher, who had helmed thepicture restoration of the Star Wars trilogy, Amadeus(see Mix, March 2002) and other films, was making anotherdiscovery, independently: At a Warner Bros. film-storage facility inBurbank, Calif., he stumbled across a huge pile of film boxes ofWattstax material. “Originally, Warner's said, ‘Wehave a lot of stuff here, but we don't have any masters. We just havethe outtakes,’” Christopher recalls. “I said,‘Let me come down and see it.’ So I went down there and Istayed in this cold vault for two-and-a-half hours and started goingthrough 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 boxesand taking extensive notes on everything I saw, and what I found wasthe camera original for the film, which was astounding to me. And Ialso found out it was a 16mm show. What Columbia [the originalreleasing company] had was a 35mm blowup negative; they had consideredthat the original. So this was a big deal.”
As he went through the boxes, many of them labeled poorly or not atall, Christopher made an exciting find: the “lost” finalreel of Wattstax, or at least the components thereof. You see,when the film originally had its premiere at L.A.'s Dorothy ChandlerPavilion in 1973, it concluded with Isaac Hayes performing “ThemeFrom Shaft” (his big hit of the day) and another moving tune fromthat film called “Soulsville,” which almost acted as asummation of many of the themes addressed in Wattstax. But rightafter the premiere, MGM Studios, which controlled the rights to themusic 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, backeddown in the face of the suit and replaced the footage with a differentHayes song — “Rolling Down a Mountainside” —shot six months after Wattstax on a soundstage, then intercutwith audience shots to make it look like it was from the L.A. concert.(Another song filmed on a soundstage and added later was LutherIngram's “If Lovin' You Is Wrong, I Don't Want to BeRight,” one of the true musical highlights of the film and inmono, no less!) As a result, no one since the premiere had ever seenthe film as intended by director Stuart.
“I discovered it on an optical soundtrack negative,”says Christopher. “And that really became the basis for therestoration. I started from the sound and worked backward. It was afull reel, and all it said on it was something like ‘Goldwyn Reel6 Soulsville.’ Well, ‘Soulsville’ didn't meananything 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. Therewas no saved print that we know of. But all the negative piecesexisted. The 16mm cut A-B rolls had most of the shots in them, but notall of them, because they did a lot of the effects work in 35 mm. Sothere were holes in the 16. When I printed the 16, the picture would goout at various times. There was no Richard Pryor, and a whole bunch ofother stuff was missing. Of course, there was no paperwork on anything,so there was a lot of detective work involved just figuring out whereeverything was and what everything was.”
Apple's Final Cut Pro editing software with Cinema Tools was used tobuild 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,” hesays. “It had been cut that way. I didn't make any aestheticdecisions.”
When Christopher learned that Stephen Hart was getting ready tobegin transferring the multitracks into Pro Tools for the Ace box setproject, he “convinced Stephen to lock it to the 60Hz pilot tone[track 16 on the master], which would give me film sync, even though atthat point, there was no film project and nobody needed to listen tome. I convinced them it was a worthy thing to do. So ‘Track16’ was my mantra: ‘Are you locked to sync?’ And theyactually 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 ProTools and went to work mixing. Between the 60Hz pilot tone and the twotracks 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 singletrack.
“I ended up using a lot of processing,” he says.“I did basically everything that's available in Pro Tools, withthe exception of tuning; I didn't touch any of that. It could have usedit, too, but with the amount of bleed there was, it would have beenvery difficult. You'd be tuning the ambience, and the next thing youknow it sounds weirder than it did out of tune. So there was plenty ofEQ'ing. The whole project jumped back and forth between a regular [ProTools] MIX system and an HD system, which had some different tools. Iset 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 wholeanalog setup would be very simple and fast.
“When I was working on it, I kept wanting it to be a widerimage,” Hart continues. “It's stereo, but it's a mono-ishstereo due to the fact that the bleed was so bad that if I got reallywide 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 wouldget kicked out of the way or they'd be way off-axis. Then there was awhole string section that was on a little side stage and it had P.A.monitors that were usually louder than the musicians were; they werenot close-miked at all. That was really a fight; I had to dive deep topull some of that stuff up. I had to do some very picky editing to cutout as much [monitor noise] as I could and still maintain some kind offluid sound, because it would get choppy with all the cuts. I used alot of EQ, a lot of filtering. And sometimes there just wasn't anythingyou could do, or the tools only made it worse. Unfortunately, withIsaac [Hayes], his performance was really good but it's one of theworst recordings. I think people must have been wiped out after a longday. I had to a do a lot of work on that, but it ended upokay.”
Meanwhile, upstairs from Fantasy at the Saul Zaentz Film Center, thefilm restoration had taken on a life of its own, even though there wasno formal financial backing for what was, at the time, entirelyspeculative work; there was no guarantee that Wattstax wouldever be re-released. There was enough interest, however, to allow FilmCenter staff to work on the project and to pay Christopher, afreelancer. From September to December of 2002, intensive work on thefilm's soundtrack kicked into gear, with Hart as the stereo andsurround music mixer, Michael Kelly the principal sound editor, and JimAustin (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 foodmaven Alice Waters, but he continued to check in every morning and tooffer his expertise. He would return in December, which became crunchtime.
Michael Kelly notes, “Like a lot of projects, the ambition andthe scope of what we did with the restoration started out small andinevitably got as big as it could get. In part, we did a completerestoration on the audio because there were not adequate masters thatsurvived. We did a thorough search and found no stems, basically. Wehad started out thinking we were just going to replace the music andwe'll use the old soundtrack for the dialog. Well, it's not that easy,because there are places where the music overlaps with the talkingheads. So then we thought, ‘Let's see what's going on with thequarter-inch. We've got to at least find the handles.’ So Tomfound all the quarter-inch audio. I wasn't expecting how much the filmwould 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-inchmono Nagra reels that were the source of the nonmusic portions of thefilm. So Anna Geyer of the Film Center watched the film over and overagain, creating a database and memorizing the dialog. Then she startedlistening to all the quarter-inch rolls, and, Kelly says,“whenever she heard any line or section of dialog that sherecognized from the film, she'd load it into Pro Tools. So basically,all the dialog in the film was rebuilt by hand. Unfortunately, therewere a few sections where there was no quarter-inch. As is always thecase with restoration, you're so thankful for all the things you find,but you never find everything, and for some reason, out of the100-plus rolls of quarter-inch that they rolled on this film, therewere two rolls missing. Now, every time I watch this film, I wince whenthose four shots where we didn't have the quarter-inch come up and thesound isn't quite up to the rest of the film.” In the cases wherethey didn't have the quarter-inch, they pulled the pieces off of mag oroptical film and put them into a Sonic Solutions No Noise to clean themup. The Richard Pryor material only existed as a dupe of the mastertapes.
Not surprisingly, given the variety of settings in the film andmotley materials he was given to work with, Jim Austin faced quite achallenge when it came to developing a good surround mix for the film.Rather than creating some over-hyped spatial environment for thedialog/street portions, he elected to have all that information appearsolely in mono in the center channel. For the music, Stephen Hart“took the 20 songs that were going to be in the film and Ibrought them back in here and made stems, which ended up wider than theoriginal because I was stereo-izing some program. Then I had ambiencethat I created for the record. The audience, which was on two tracks,was always discrete. Then there were plates and 480s that I built someambiences with that I printed to separate stems. In the end, it was 24tracks 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 useany low-frequency effect or subwoofer channel on the film because itdidn't seem to fit the genre that we had, and I didn't want tomanufacture it.”
Most of what appears in the rears of the surround mix is audienceand reverb. “It was easy enough to build a good stadium soundwith the modern reverberation tools we have right now,” Austinsays. “That was one of the easier things. But you have to startwith a good stage sound, and that was hard because there was so muchleakage, and sometimes it was constructive and sometimes it was quitehampering: You'd get bass cancellation sometimes from differenttracks.”
“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 createnew things. We had to figure out: Is that the crowd mics that werelive, 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. Iwould take the same track, have it bubbling in front and then a versionof that offset bubbling in back.
“But there are also specific effects. When Jesse Jacksonintroduces the Black National Anthem [“Lift Every Voice andSing”] and then [Kim Weston's] singing it, there's a shot whereJesse 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 singerin The Bar Kays picks up a cowbell and starts hitting it, but it wasn'ton any of the mics, so I went to Guitar Center and bought a cowbell. Alot of the work was like the Tasmanian Devil: whatever was right infront of you that had to get done to prep for the mix, we flew throughit to do it any way we could.”
Even with the team working hard day after day, “From week toweek, it looked like the project might get shut down because therewasn't enough interest and money to finish it,” Kelly says.“It was just little baby steps week to week that allowed it toeventually blossom.” The team put together a videocassette of thefilm, including the “new” ending, and Film Centerfacilities manager Scott Roberts sent it around to various people andstudios trying to drum up interest in the project.
“We had also made a DVD that compared the new ending and theold ending, so it was an analysis tool if you wanted it,”Christopher says. “We sent those around and nobody was calling usback. But we kept trying, and suddenly Sundance [Film Festival] calledback and said, ‘We want this film. We're going to play it, butnot in competition.’”
Instead, Sundance gave Wattstax a special designation as ahistorically significant film, worthy of inclusion in the SundanceArchive at UCLA. That bit of news was all it took for Sony, which hadthe theatrical rights to the film (through its ownership of ColumbiaPictures) to bankroll the remainder of the restoration at the FilmCenter. “Of course, it's what we all wanted,” Christophersays, “but it was impossible: It was December 9th when we got theP.O., and Sundance wanted a print by December 30th. Well, we managed tofind a great lab — Monaco [in San Francisco] — that wantedthe 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 onChristmas Eve. The day after Christmas, it was being neg cut. We hadour first print out of the lab on the 6th of January; we delivered [toSundance] around the 10th or the 14th. We were late, but it gotthere.”
And, predictably, Wattstax was very well-received atSundance. At press time, the film is slated to play at the late-Aprilopening of the new Stax Museum in Memphis, and a limited theatricalrelease was planned for early June. At the Film Center, there was stilldebate about the DVD that will likely come out in the fall. What sortof extras might there be? More from Albert King's incendiary set? The“old” ending, with Hayes lip-synching “Rolling Downthe Moun-tainside”? Those decisions were still up in the air. Butthe really hard work — restoring this fascinating slice of blackAmericana — was done, and Wattstax can now be enjoyed bynew generations of viewers and take its rightful place among the greatconcert films.
Below, more classic shots of Stax stars, taken from thefilm.
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