If the sight of a pre-South Park Isaac Hayes in a chain-mail vest singing "God Is on Our Side" isn't enticement enough to see Wattstax, how about a middle-aged Rufus Thomas in pink knickers and white vinyl boots presiding over 100,000 fans doing the funky chicken? Not to suggest that this legendary 1973 documentary (not available on video unless you live in Japan) is a mere period fashion show; far from it.
Wattstax is a two-hour distillation of the six-hour outdoor concert that ended the 1972 Watts Summer Festival, filmed at the L.A. Coliseum. It's more ambitious than most such films, backgrounding much of the music to comic cut-ins by Richard Pryor, footage from the '65 Watts riots, images of clapboard churches and abandoned storefronts, and energetic rap sessions among neighbors, friends, and activists. Fans who prefer their funk straight up, without the pesky presence of context, will find the frequent cutaways jarring. Still, there are superb musical moments scattered throughout from a roster of early '70s Stax/Volt recording artists: Mavis Staples' commanding contralto on "Respect Yourself"; the Bar-Kays' earnest rendition of "Son of Shaft"; Albert King's sweet-sad "I'll Sing the Blues for You." Best of all, perhaps, is Little Milton's "Walking the Back Street and Crying," staged by director Mel Stuart with Milton singing alone on a grim industrial street in the fading Los Angeles day next to a barrel in which trash is burning, a subtle and moving reminder of the Watts riots and their failure to bring real change. The screening begins Wednesday at 7:15 p.m. (also Thursday through Saturday), followed by a live set from Funky Soul Reconstruction, at the Fine Arts Cinema, 2451 Shattuck (at Haste), Berkeley. Admission is $8; call (510) 848-1143.
-- Gary Morris