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STAX: Soulsville, USA

"STAX: Soulsville USA" is a four-part, four-hour series about the legendary Memphis soul music label's rise and fall, and its impact on American culture and history. 

Stax was founded in 1957 by siblings who bonded over their love of music: country fiddle player Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton, who took out a second mortgage on her house to finance the construction of a music store and a recording studio. The music store was wide-ranging: it is described in the first episode of the series as sort of an ongoing focus group with a permanent address, enabling Stewart and Axton to learn what kinds of music people were open to buying. But the studio only recorded country because that's what the founders knew best. 

Then the father-daughter team of Rufus and Carla Thomas entered the picture and recorded soul songs for the company. Their second effort, "Gee Whiz: Look at His Eyes," became the company's first hit (in both rhythm & blues and pop). It also started their association with Atlantic Records, which gave the smaller company a $5000 advance plus promotion and distribution muscle in exchange for a five-year option on all future recordings. Satellite became Stax, a cryptic amalgam of letters from Stewart and Wexler's last names. 

As any student of music history could tell you even if they didn't know the details of Stax's relationship with Atlantic, this arrangement came back to bite the founders. Over the next eight years, Stax built up the careers of multiple all-timers, including Booker T. & the MGs and Otis Redding, and became a force to rival Motown. The latter was putting out a slicker, altogether more palatable product, without the raw, passionate lead vocals and funky Southern-fried soul elements that defined the house band at Stax, as well as the company's regular composer-arrangers (among them: Isaac Hayes, who would make Stax a fortune and win them an Oscar with the original songs and score for "Shaft"). But in 1968, months after Redding's death in a plane crash, Atlantic sold out to Warner Bros. Atlantic's point person with Stax, Jerry Wexler, exercised a clause in the contract (which Stewart did not read before signing) that gave Atlantic all of Stax's existing catalog, save for unreleased work, and forced them to start over just when their power was at its peak. 

Stax persisted nonetheless. Hayes' great success changed the energy of the operation and propelled them into the next decade, peaking with the Wattstax event in Los Angeles. Unfortunately by 1975, Stax was functionally nonexistent. The company fell victim not only to Atlantic and Warner's corporate treachery and an unfavorable distribution deal with CBS Records, but also the tendency of artists to start their own entertainment companies and become immediate successes based on talent and originality, then crater because nobody actually knew how to run a business. The closest equivalent to a responsible adult in Stax's executive ranks was former DJ turned marketing executive Al Bell, who eventually became the company's vice president and a co-owner. He was so valuable that after repeated disagreements between him and Axton forced Stewart to pick a side, he stood with Bell and made his sister step down. Axton took the money from selling her shares in Stax and founded the Memphis Songwriters Association as well as her own label, Fretone, whose biggest hit was the 1976 novelty record "Disco Duck." Fantasy Records bought the post-Atlantic catalog in 1978 and started signing new acts and releasing new music, but retreated and became a reissues-only label for the next twenty years. 

It's a great story with lots of twists, and more colorful characters than can be comprehensively listed here—though Bell and Booker T. Jones deserve special praise; their thoughtful statements are cement holding a sprawling narrative together. The series also succeeds as an atmospheric re-creation of places and eras. "STAX" is a trove of well-known and rarely- or never-seen footage. Among the latter: kinescopes of live TV concerts, home movies by Stax intimates, and TV news images of the wreckage of Redding's plane; film clips and still photos that bring the 1960s Memphis recording studio scene to life (including repeated shots of a hand perched over a fader, a cigarette smoldering between two fingers); and archival imagery of life beyond the studio (including 16mm film of street life in '60s Memphis, and hauntingly framed shots of rain on streets and buildings in the hours leading to the Rev. Martin Luther King's assassination). 

What you won't get from the series is much sense of the creative and financial conflicts between artists or the seamy underbelly of the record industry (in every genre, not just soul/R&B). Given the apparent mandate of the series, that's understandable. Film and TV documentaries about pre-existing music could not exist without the participation of corporate "intellectual property" rights-holders. The three big dogs here are HBO, a division of Time Warner Discovery, which bought Warner Entertainment, an earlier incarnation of which absorbed Atlantic; Polygram Entertainment, a division of Universal Music Group; and Concord Theatricals. The latter describes itself on its web site as a music publishing and licensing company providing "comprehensive service" to storytellers who are using lots pre-existing music in their work, but the main thing to know about them is that they now own Fantasy Records, the company that  was built atop the graveyard of the post-1967 Stax. Which means that, for all of its sensitivity, intelligence and feeling, what you're seeing when you watch "STAX" is in some fundamental sense a four-hour promotional video for intellectual property, commissioned and controlled by the rights holders—and that if you want the down-and-dirty, unexpurgated history, you're probably better off reading music history books, or spending the day on Wikipedia clicking key players' names.

Still, this is a thrilling and often moving production, one that pushes the outer edge of the envelope of its innate limitations as product, and illuminates the material in a sorrowful, sensitive manner. Directed and coproduced by Jamila Wignot ("The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross"), its scope, ambition, and pace evoke "OJ Simpson: Made in America" (the architect of which, Ezra Edelman, is listed as an executive producer). "STAX" would work brilliantly as a companion piece to it, because of its ability to show how massive, anonymous-seeming historical forces bear down on individual lives. Every ten minutes there's an anecdote that hits you right in the heart, like Jim Stewart and Carla Thomas' account of having to enter a restricted hotel through a service elevator; or Booker T. Jones talking about how, in the aftermath of King's murder, his white colleagues never asked him how he was feeling or even mentioned the tragedy. "I started to feel, deep down, that something was amiss," he says. "They didn't understand my daily life as a Black person." Jones says he came to understand that "the close personal relationship I had with them didn't exist outside of the studio." 

The seeming benevolence and "color-blindness" hinted at in early sections of the story is peeled away after that. What's revealed is something fundamentally selfish and passive-aggressively oblivious in America itself, not just its music industry. the Black artists who revolutionized pop music rarely got to share in the financial part of its success because, with a handful of exceptions, they didn't actually own anything. That meant that any help that the white establishment might give them was more self-serving or conciliatory than genuinely empowering, no matter how kind and honorable any one person might have been. The realization that runs beneath all of "STAX" is more powerful for not being stated bluntly by any living witness, though James Baldwin boils it down at the start of the third hour: "I don't want to be given anything by you. I just want to be left alone so that I can do it myself."

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of RogerEbert.com, TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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STAX: Soulsville, USA (2024)

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