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.)

Stax hagiography often treats the mid-1960s as the label’s glory years, but Wignot’s film makes the refreshing decision to focus a great deal of attention on the 1970s and Bell’s unfairly maligned tenure. In 1968, when Stax parted ways with Atlantic, the Memphis label discovered that, due to a predatory contract that Stewart had rather carelessly signed with the distributor, Atlantic owned Stax’s entire back catalog. Normally, this would be a functional death sentence for a record label, but Bell stepped in and spearheaded an audacious revitalization plan, scouring the Stax archives for unreleased material that could be fashioned into new singles and imploring artists and producers to work at a breakneck pace to help reestablish Stax’s market foothold. In a testament to Bell’s tirelessness and the enormous amount of talent still on hand at Stax, the plan worked: Johnnie Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love” was released in late 1968 and became the bestselling single in Stax history, and smash hits from stars like the Staple Singers, Jean Knight, and the Dramatics soon followed.

The marquee star of the Al Bell era was Isaac Hayes, who died in 2008 and to whom the doc rightly devotes a considerable amount of focus. Hayes began his career at Stax in the early 1960s and quickly became a session keyboard player and star songwriter, co-penning such Sam and Dave classics as “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby,” and “Soul Man” with his writing partner David Porter. In 1968, with Bell frantically looking for new product, Hayes embarked on a solo career with his boss’s encouragement. In 1969 he released the landmark album Hot Buttered Soul, an experimental and wildly ambitious work that became a surprise smash, topping the R&B album charts and crossing over to No. 8 on the Billboard 200. Hot Buttered Soul rocketed Hayes to superstardom, and his silky, powerful baritone would become one of the most electrifying sounds of 1970s R&B. In 1972 Hayes became the first Black artist to win the Academy Award for best song, with the Hot 100–topping “Theme From Shaft.” Soulsville U.S.A. climaxes with Hayes’ headlining turn at the legendary 1973 Wattstax concert, a music festival organized by Bell at the Los Angeles Coliseum that was later made into a concert film.

The film’s generous focus on the 1970s does mean that certain 1960s artists get short shrift. There’s a lot here on Redding but not much on Wilson Pickett, who was never signed to Stax but recorded “In the Midnight Hour” at its studios in 1965, nor is there much on Albert King, who made some of the most influential blues records of the era with the label. And although the film does devote a decent chunk of time to Booker T. and the MGs, their contributions could have used more of a spotlight. As a studio band, they transformed the sound of R&B music, and while surviving members Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper are interviewed extensively in the film, less attention is paid to the incomparable rhythm section of drummer Al Jackson Jr. and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, both of whom are deceased. (Jackson was murdered in 1975; Dunn died in 2012.)

But these are minor quibbles with what’s generally a lovely and elegant film. The movie’s final chapter avoids dwelling on recriminations over Stax’s downfall, which seems less like the fault of any one person and more a combination of getting repeatedly screwed over by a corporate music industry designed to do just that to any insurgent it encounters, and a long-simmering resentment among rich and powerful white Memphians that this Black-oriented company had come to define the music and culture of the city. As one interviewee notes late in the film, Stax could have easily been saved if certain people had wanted it to be.

But musical entities as vibrant and special as Stax never last forever—just ask the Beatles, who were themselves such Stax fanatics that they originally wanted to record Revolver there. Throughout Wignot’s film, it’s Jim Stewart and Al Bell who emerge as the most compelling interview subjects. (Maybe the most moving scene is when a nonagenarian Stewart, who died in 2022, nearly breaks down in tears describing the beautiful voice of Shirley Brown, whose 1975 smash “Woman to Woman,” which Stewart co-produced, became Stax’s last major hit.) In many ways, the two men feel like two sides of one coin: Stewart the soft-spoken, music-smitten dreamer who’s woefully inept at the business side, and Bell the visionary businessman whose ambition and single-mindedness can sometimes run roughshod over human relationships. You need both dreamers and doers to make a great record label, and for a long time Stax was one of the greatest. What Stax: Soulsville U.S.A. ultimately leaves us with isn’t a romantic vision of Stax as some magical place, but rather a messy and complicated one where real people made great art. In many ways, that humanization makes the music itself all the more magical.

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