STAX: Soulsville U.S.A.

Excellent music documentary puts label story in a larger context

STAX: Soulsville U.S.A.
Where: Crave
What: Miniseries, 4 episodes, 58 mins.
When: Mon., May 20
Genre: Documentary
Rating: NNNNN (out of 5)
Why you should watch: This excellent music doc tells soul labels’ compelling story that powerfully locates the tale in the context of the larger society.

THIS SPECTACULAR, inspiring and ultimately infuriating documentary tells an amazing music story of Memphis-based, Black showcasing soul record label, Stax while powerfully locating it in the context of the tumultuous ‘60s and ‘70s society around it.

White county singer Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton set up Stax records in 1960 in an old movie theatre in a Black Memphis neighbourhood, adding a record store to the studios in the old building. In segregated ‘60s Tennessee, it was scandalous that the white store owners welcomed the Black community to make the record store a hangout. This proved critical since after one failed country single, Stax started releasing the music of artists who literally showed up at their door. A single by Carla and Rufus Thomas is their first non-country release, a hit. A determined young singer keeps hanging around the store and the studio, eventually convincing the Stax team to give him a shot. His name? Otis Redding. Booker T. Jones and his MGs would quickly emerge as the house band, itself quite scandalous by bringing white musicians like Steve Cropper and Don Dunn together with the Black artists.

The MGs’ international hit Green Onions would emerge from a late-night jam session and Issac Hayes and Sam and Dave quickly become part of the hit making machine that celebrated black culture without pandering to white audiences.

The doc features plenty of interviews with key musicians and other critical characters in the Stax story all bolstered by Canadian musicologist and Grammy-winning album notes writer Rob Bowman. Race is a constant issue in the US for Stax and its artists but when ambitious promo rep and eventual Stax owner owner Al Bell discovers a huge fanbase for the label in Britain, the label’s artists make a revelatory trip to the United Kingdom where white and black bandmates can stay in the same hotels among other segregation-free insights. It leaves them all with a renewed sense of black power and faith in the value of their work.

Many cite the label’s creation of the legendary WattStax concert in Los Angeles in 1969 showcasing the label’s acts and featuring empowering speeches by Jesse Jackson, called “Black Woodstock” by some, as a perhaps the greatest achievement in the label’s history. Excellent performance video from this amazing concert is among this performance-rich docs highlights.

Stax eventually succumbs to a predatory battle with a major label, Columbia, once enlisted as a partner to help distribute their music but eventually terminally squeezing the label in an attempt to bring it to heel and renegotiate a deal they felt overly favored Stax.

At a time we are being flooded with music docs, richly contextual and deeply informative, Stax: Soulsville U.S.A. is one of the best.