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Tue May 21, 2024, 08:56 AM May 21

A Great New Documentary Corrects the Record About One of Music's Most Important Chapters

A Great New Documentary Corrects the Record About One of Music’s Most Important Chapters
With Soulsville, U.S.A., HBO gives Stax the sweeping, complex documentary it deserves.

MAY 20, 20246:07 PM

(Slate) The streaming era has seen such an unrelenting onslaught of music documentaries, the quality of which usually ranges only between varying shades of pedestrian, that it’s surprising to come across one that’s thoughtful, nuanced, and genuinely illuminating. Jamila Wignot’s new documentary Stax: Soulsville U.S.A., which is currently streaming on Max, is a welcome addition to that rarified category. The film spans four parts and tells the story of Stax Records, the titanic Memphis R&B label, from its late-1950s beginnings to its 1975 demise, and relies mostly on present-day and archival interviews with the artists, executives, and label employees who built Stax into one of the great musical operations of the 20th century. The film is executive produced by Ezra Edelman, who won an Oscar for 2016’s magisterial O.J.: Made in America, and although Stax doesn’t quite have that film’s scope and thematic gravity (almost nothing does), it is similar in the patience with which it allows its narrative to unfold and the trust it has in its audience to grapple with complexity and ambiguity.

Stax is one of those American institutions so overdetermined in its symbolism that the legend of the label has often eclipsed the reality. For decades the prevailing mythology of Stax went something like this: Founded by the white brother-sister pair of Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton (the St-Ax of the label’s name), Stax brought together some of the most talented Black and white young musicians in the city, soon creating a sound that would be the bleeding edge of 1960s R&B. Boasting stars like Rufus and Carla Thomas, Sam and Dave, and Otis Redding, as well as the ace house band of Booker T. and the MGs, the label and its McLemore Avenue studios were a colorblind oasis of racial harmony in an otherwise fiercely segregated South. And yet by the late 1960s, this story goes, the Stax magic was beginning to fade: Redding was killed in a plane crash, MLK was assassinated in Memphis, and a falling-out with the label’s distributor, Atlantic Records, left Stax in crisis. Into this void stepped new label head Al Bell, whose voracious commercial ambitions and embrace of Black cultural nationalism alienated key figures from the label’s heyday. By the mid-1970s, Stax had collapsed and Bell had been indicted for bank fraud. (He was later acquitted.)

This particular myth has a lot of problems, starting with its insinuations that Stax’s downfall was the result of the label becoming “too Black.” More recent Stax histories, such as in Robert Gordon’s Respect Yourself and Charles Hughes’ Country Soul, have gone a long way toward correcting the tragic narrative of Stax as a fallen interracial utopia. Stax: Soulsville U.S.A. contributes to this as well, in powerful and understated ways. It’s not a film with heroes and villains, and it doesn’t trot out a parade of celebrity talking heads to wax effusive about how great Stax was. It lets the music, as well as the people who helped make that music, speak for itself. (The one “outside” voice featured in the doc is historian Rob Bowman, whose meticulously researched 1997 history of the label, Soulsville U.S.A., is one of the best books of its kind you’ll ever read.) .............(more)


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A Great New Documentary Corrects the Record About One of Music's Most Important Chapters (Original Post) marmar May 21 OP
Thanks. I'll watch it! LeftInTX May 21 #1
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