|Director: Robert Gordon & Morgan Neville
|Screenplay: Mark Crosby, Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville
|Features: Samuel L. Jackson (Narrator), Estelle Axton, Al Bell, Jellybean Benítez, Steve Cropper, Donald Dunn, Isaac Hayes, Jesse Jackson, Booker T. Jones, Sam Moore, Mavis Staples, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, Jim Stewart
|MPAA Rating: NR
|Year of Release: 2007
||Originally aired on PBS last year after playing several film festivals, Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story is a fascinating chronicle of Stax Records, the Memphis-based R&B label whose unlikely two-decade trajectory from small-time garage recording studio to multi-million-dollar music empire that helped redefine both soul music and race relations is a bracing true-life success-and-burn story. Directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, who first worked together on the 2003 documentary Muddy Waters Can’t Be Satisfied, have assembled interviews with an impressive array of characters who were central to the rise and eventual fall of Stax, and listening to them talk is a stark reminder of the important cultural role the label played during the heady and sometimes violent era known as the ’60s. An early proponent of integration--not political grandstanding, mind you, but direct action--Stax became a symbol of music as the tie that binds, which makes its eventual downfall amidst questionable financial decisions and general bad luck all the more heartbreaking.
Stax was founded by the unlikely team of Jim Stewart, a country music fiddler, and his sister Estelle Axton, who had a knack for understanding new musical trends. They took the first two letters of their respective last names and combined them to form Stax, as perfect a record label name as I’ve ever heard, and set up shop in an old movie theater in a predominantly black working-class neighborhood in Memphis. Jim and Estelle, who were white, did not care about the color of the musicians who came through their doors, which was hardly the general attitude in the late 1950s in Memphis, a city that was beginning the long road toward official desegregation but was still bitterly racially divided. Jim and Estelle’s inclusiveness resulted in the formation of rare integrated R&B groups likes The Mar-Keys and Booker T. & the MGs, who paved the way for Stax’s two truly legendary performers, Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes. The musicians recorded their sounds in the converted movie theater while Estelle sold their records in the adjacent Satellite Record shop, which became a local hang-out.
Respect Yourself traces the meteoric growth of Stax, as its unique sound, which was rougher and funkier than the more manufactured, smooth-sounding R&B coming out of Detroit’s Motown, caught on around the country. Deals are made and broken with major labels, and Stax survives a near-disastrous agreement with Atlantic Records in the late 1960s that resulted in the loss of nearly all their talent and back catalog. Yet, they rallied and became bigger than ever, especially in their association with various civil rights causes and the black power movement. By the early ’70s, Stax was able to organized Wattstax, a massive outdoor concert held in Los Angeles that drew more than 100,000 people, and banks were falling over themselves to lend them money.
With Samuel L. Jackson (himself a native of Tennessee) narrating, Gordon and Neville weave the story of Stax Records primarily via interviews with those directly involved in its history, including Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton; Al Bell, who became Stewart’s partner and whose ambitions were primarily responsible for the label’s explosive growth; Jesse Jackson, who emceed Wattstax and worked closely with Bell on social causes; and various musicians--not just the on-stage stars, but also session musicians and songwriters who provided the backbone of the label’s production. The interviews are laced with archival footage from television and various concerts, some of which is so entrancing that it almost threatens to bring the documentary to a dead halt. Otis Redding belting out “Try a Little Tenderness” or Booker T. and the MGs playing “Green Onions” gives powerful testimony to the enormous impact Stax had on the world of popular music and goes a long way toward justifying the unstated, but guiding thesis of the film, which is that Stax was the greatest of R&B labels.
However, more importantly, the film never loses sight of the relationship between Stax and what was happening in the wider American culture. As Stax rose to prominence, so did the civil rights movement, making the two all but inseparable. Cogent bits of information like the fact that the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, was a favorite hang-out of those who worked at Stax, makes the connection seem almost preordained. More than just a documentary about a record label, then, Respect Yourself chronicles the slow and painful, but also exhilarating, birth of a new era in American history, with Stax standing as an unlikely yet inspiring trailblazer that left behind much more than just a legacy of great music.
For those wanting a true headrush of that great music, the two-disc DVD release of Respect Yourself includes Stax Volt Revue: Live in Norway 1967, a previously unreleased video document of an April 7, 1967 concert in Oslo, which was part of Stax’s legendary European tour. Long sought by R&B aficionados, but unavailable due to various rights issues, Stax Volt Revue is a potent testament to the label’s assemblage of great musical talent and the impact they had at the height of their prowess. Even the low-resolution black-and-white televisual image can’t diminish the power of the 17 song performances by six of Stax’s most important artists: The Mark-Keys, Booker T. and the MGs, Arthur Conley, Eddie Floyd, Sam and Dave, and Otis Redding. The version of the concert included here is a compilation of both the hour of footage that originally aired on Norwegian television and an additional 20 minutes that were recently discovered and have never before been seen. The concert has been completely re-edited to insert the new footage and also to rearrange the order of the performances to reflect the actual set list that night.
|Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story / Stax Volt Revue 2-Disc DVD Set|
Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo
|Subtitles||English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese|
“Stax All-Star Reunion Rehearsal” footage
Audio commentary Steve Cropper and Wayne Jackson with Rob Bowman
“A Look Back on the Tour” featurette
“Green Onions” alternate version
Insert booklet with liner notes by historian Rob Bowman
|Distributor||Infinity Entertainment Group|
|Release Date||November 18, 2008 |
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story is presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer that is invariably uneven in image quality due to its many sources. Much of the film’s imagery is taken from various archival sources, which range from grainy 16mm to old videotape. However, the transfer represents these different sources very well, and the differing textures help create the sense of history in the making. The newer interviews appear to have been shot on high-end video and look very sharp and clear. Stax Volt Revue: Live in Norway 1967 was likewise assembled from several different sources, although all of them appear to be black-and-white video (1.33:1) that is fairly low in resolution, but still adequate to enjoy the historic performances. According to the liner notes, the 75 minutes of performances were culled from both the master tape of the original Norwegian television broadcast and an additional 20 minutes from another tape that has not been seen in 40 years. The two have been edited together quite seamlessly and represent what is likely the best possible and most complete presentation of this concert.|
|The only supplement on the first disc in this two-disc set is 13 minutes of footage from the Stax All-Star Reunion in Austin, Texas, in 2007, which features Booker T. and the MGs, William Bell, Eddie Floyd, and Isaac Hayes. The Stax Volt Revue disc features an audio commentary by Steve Cropper (guitarist for Booker T. and the MGs) and Wayne Jackson (trumpeter for the Mar-Keys), with a few comments by historian Rob Bowman (author of Soulsville USA: The Story of Stax Records). The commentary is definitely low key and casual, sounding like an overheard conversation between the men while watching the concert. “A Look Back on the Tour” is a 23-minute featurette that feels like an outtake from the documentary about the Oslo concert. It features interviews with Wayne Jackson, Steve Cropper, Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave), and Stax cofounder Jim Stewart. Lastly, this disc contains an alternate version of “Green Onions” from the Oslo concert. The two-disc set also comes packaged with a thick, beautifully illustrated, Criterion Collection-worthy insert booklet with extensive liner notes about the history of Stax Records and the 1967 Oslo concert by Rob Bowman.
Overall Rating: (3.5)
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Infinity Entertainment Group