Soulsville USA is goosebumps inducing underdog story
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Soulsville USA is goosebumps inducing underdog story

The world of music documentaries is a challenging one, often fraught with the difficulty of capturing the essence of bands, labels, and scenes that have left an indelible mark on history. Many attempts fall short, either by oversimplifying the narrative or failing to convey the kinetic energy of the music they aim to celebrate. However, HBO’s recent docuseries “Stax: Soulsville U.S.A.” directed by Jamila Wignot, stands out as a goosebumps-inducing underdog story that hits all the right notes.

“Stax: Soulsville U.S.A.” chronicles the rise, fall, and improbable resurgence of Stax Records, a Memphis-based label that initially aimed to produce country music but found its true calling in the heart of a Black neighborhood teeming with untapped talent. The series is packed with moments that send shivers down your spine, from a young Carla Thomas penning her first song in minutes to Booker T. & the M.G.’s unknowingly recording what would become the iconic “Green Onions.”

The docuseries doesn’t just focus on the music; it also delves into the social and political climate of the times. Archival footage of police brutality, segregated facilities, and civil rights protests paints a vivid picture of the racism that extended far beyond Memphis. Yet, within the city, Stax Records became a beacon of hope and a symbol of the civil rights movement. The label’s artists and employees were vocal supporters of the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike, and Martin Luther King Jr. himself was a guest at the Lorraine Motel, a Stax hangout, on the fateful day of his assassination.

One of the most poignant stories in the series is that of Isaac Hayes, who, nervous about his first TV appearance as a frontman, donned sunglasses to shield his anxiety, inadvertently creating an iconic look. The series also highlights the feminist anthem “Who’s Making Love” by Johnnie Taylor, penned by the label’s sole female staff writer, Bettye Crutcher. These stories are not just about music; they are about resilience, creativity, and the fight for dignity and pride.

The docuseries also tackles the corporate machinations that nearly destroyed Stax. A shady contract with Atlantic Records siphoned off most of the profits, and later, CBS’s refusal to ship Stax LPs led to the label’s downfall. Yet, the focus remains on the artists and their experiences, rather than getting bogged down in the intricacies of corporate greed.

The final part of the series centers on Wattstax, a 1972 concert at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that drew 112,000 attendees, making it the largest gathering of Black people outside a civil rights event. The concert, which featured Stax artists like Isaac Hayes and the Staples Singers, was a celebration of Black culture and resilience. It was documented by Black filmmakers and crew, with no LAPD presence, making it a powerful statement of self-reliance and community.

What makes “Stax: Soulsville U.S.A.” truly special is its ability to convey the joy and passion that permeated the label. Despite the tragedies that surrounded Stax, including the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the plane crash that killed Otis Redding and members of the Bar-Kays, the series captures the infectious energy and happiness of the artists. The sight of young musicians locked in a jam session, creating feel-good music, is a testament to the enduring spirit of Stax.

In a world where music documentaries often miss the mark, “Stax: Soulsville U.S.A.” is a triumph. It’s a story of an underdog label that not only produced some of the most memorable music of its time but also played a significant role in the civil rights movement. The series is a reminder of why art matters and how it can inspire, uplift, and bring about change.