'Respect' will take you there
Soul music is generally better heard -- and felt and danced to-- than dissected.
The freedom you feel when shaking a tailfeather to Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness" or Sam and Dave's "Hold On, I'm Coming" would seem generally preferable to chatting about the history of the record label they were on.
Fortunately, the minds behind "Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story," airing tonight as part of "Great Performances" on PBS, know this. They cram every inch of this two-hour retrospective with the well-known sweet sounds of Stax. Even better, they offer the rarer sight of such artists as Redding, Sam and Dave, Booker T. and the MGs, and the Staple Singers in action. These musicians were part of a roster that made the Memphis-based label's finger snap logo a signal of quality in the '60s and '70s.
While performance footage is the highlight here, Stax's tale is a compelling one. Most of the still-living principals, including songwriters, producers, performers, and label staff, are interviewed about their time spent both in the racially integrated studio on McLemore Avenue and the harshly segregated world right outside.
Filmmakers Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville do an especially smart job of illuminating the links between the sound and success of Stax and the unsettled tenor of its home city. They also judiciously, almost subliminally, provide the ideal Stax soundtrack for the images floating by, be they of musicians goofing in the studio or sanitation workers on strike.
As details of the Memphis assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. are reexamined with the aid of news footage and first-person accounts (the Lorraine Motel was a hangout for Stax artists), Mable John's bone-weary lament "Your Good Thing (Is About to End)" perfectly encapsulates the sense of loss and resignation.
Many Stax artists say that King's death -- with its chilling effect on the city of Memphis -- was one in a series of events that sent the label into turmoil. The 1967 plane crash death of Redding and the loss of almost the entire catalog to Atlantic Records in 1968 just preceded the tragedy.
Resurgence came on the back of Isaac Hayes -- in all his pre-"South Park" gold-link-chained glory -- and alongside the rise of the Black Power movement. The moment was ecstatic yet brief, with Stax declaring bankruptcy and descending into a morass of lawsuits in 1975.
The film's hopeful postscript details the rebuilding of the famed studio, the opening of the nonprofit community school called the Stax Music Academy, and the recent relaunch of the label with such artists as Angie Stone.
As entertaining and well-researched as "Respect Yourself" is, a few threads are maddeningly left dangling. Discussion of a criminal element that threatened the label in the late '60s details an episode where a gun was literally held to the head of songwriter David Porter in a successful bid to break up the Hayes-Porter songwriting team. But Porter and Hayes, who comment throughout, are not asked about the incident.
The biggest gloss-over occurs, however, when label cofounder Jim Stewart admits that he didn't read the "fine print" on Stax's contract with Atlantic or when discussing the distribution details with legendary Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler. The deal gave Atlantic ownership of the work of all its participating artists. Although he admits there were arguments, Stewart essentially lets Wexler off the hook and no one from the major label comments on the arrangement.
Certainly, letting bygones fade like the end of a good song is admirable, but, in telling the whole story, a few more choruses to flesh out the details would have been welcome.
It also might have been nice to include even a short montage of Stax songs that were remade or sampled over the years, illustrating the label's continued influence. That said, celebrity Stax fans Bono, Elvis Costello, Chuck D, and Jermaine Dupri do show up to give props to the label that made gritty soul music respectable.