Soul Men, Soul Women, Soul Movies: ‘Soulsville’

Bob Sarles’ short film for Stax Museum, Soulsville shows how the perfect man for the job has brilliantly distilled the best of his gathered raw material, which must be voluminous.

Bob Sarles
Ravin Films
2 May 2003 (Limited release)

When  Bob Sarles first screened Soulsville, his new collection of documentaries about the musical personalities of Stax Records, too many people showed up. The event took place in a San Francisco nightclub, from which, on fire marshal’s orders, more than 100 filmgoers had to be turned away.

It was a letdown for those who couldn’t get in. But it was also deeply reassuring to know that so many people still give a damn about musicians like Otis Redding, Booker T. and the MGs, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes, and the Staple Singers. Sarles himself was abashed by the calamity and found himself in the peculiar position of apologizing for having miscalculated the interest his work would generate. He later gave some of us another chance to see Soulsville, and in a forgiving and grooving mood, we applauded before the short film even started.

One reason the demand for Soulsville is so high is that although the short films it brings together will soon play every day, they will only play in one place. If you live in Memphis and have been hearing about the new Stax Museum of American Soul Music, you owe it to yourself to get down there (in more ways than one) as soon as it opens. If you live elsewhere but have been considering a visit, now might be the time. That’s the impression Soulsville made on me; designed as an overview of “American Soul” via Stax, it’s something of a tease.

“This is not a Ken Burns film,” asserted the director, who cut his teeth working for MTV Networks, a venue where, it’s safe to say, sprawling comprehensiveness is avoided. Sarles’ other shorts include films about Janis Joplin and Eric Clapton for the Experience Music Project in Seattle and a 20-minute documentary, Feed Your Head, for Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Intended as an introduction to the new museum, Soulsville features an overture that takes about 15 minutes to get viewers up to speed on the Stax legacy. To accomplish this, Sarles assembled a swift, abridged montage of interviews, live performances, and recording session footage and packed it with snippets of hits.

At first, it’s a little maddening. You catch just enough of a tune to want to settle into it but are instead shuffled straightaway to the next one. But soon, a new feeling takes over, a nearly overwhelming recognition of exactly how much great music came from this place. Sarles adds to this overture seven more short films, in no particular order, to profile individual Stax artists and one of the label’s contemporaries, Hi Records. (These will run individually, in loops, throughout the museum.)

The collection is greater than the sum of its parts. It constructs a decent context, from the company’s humble origins as a sort of neighborhood music stands influenced by the blues, country, and gospel to its pinnacle at Wattstax, a 1972 festival also known as the “black Woodstock”, and to its eventual collapse under its own weight shortly thereafter. More striking, though, Soulsville gives the sense that Sarles has brilliantly distilled the best of his gathered raw material, which must be voluminous. Sarles has an ear. He locks in a good rhythm, really listens to his sources, and knows a hook when he hears one.

And he hears plenty. The songs he showcases in Soulsville are durably structured, and Sarles tunes in to their adjustable resonance. The old staple, “Green Onions”, for example, can seem cool and courtly when used to establish Booker T. and the MGs as Stax’s notably biracial “house band”, or barbed and furious when scoring footage of mid-’60s social turbulence. Likewise, Otis Redding’s intimate habit of feeling his way around a turn of phrase or a chord change can be deeply mournful and brazenly affirmative at once. Sarles has an aficionado’s affection for these musicians; he lets them speak, sing, and play for themselves.

It is tempting, with a work like this, to eulogize. To praise Stax, in other words, and bury it. Obviously, that’s not quite what the new museum has in mind – which is why Sarles is the right man for this job, as he gives this past a sense of urgency. Some of the Staxians are no longer with us, and the company has dissolved, but there’s hardly an overabundance of funereal energy and “those were the days” talk in Soulsville – even when it slows down to acknowledge the devastation wrought by Martin Luther King’s assassination. “I can tell you that prior to that, there was never, ever any color that came through the doors,” says MGs guitarist Steve Cropper. “And after that, it was never the same.”

It’s an emotional moment for Cropper, who usually seems even-keeled and affable. Most of the musicians – who didn’t realize how popular they were until a European tour really put things in perspective – are disarmingly grounded and personable. They exude no sense of entitlement to having a documentary made about them. (Not even Isaac Hayes!) There’s a bit of showmanship, naturally, from Rufus Thomas, who offers a point of comparison with the Motown sound, which, he says, “was good, of course, but the minute you crossed the Mason and Dixon Line, and got down here in Memphis – altogether different!”

Motown then meant Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, and the Supremes – polished, innocuous, and radio-friendly. The Stax sound, by contrast, sweltered; it was raw and personal, and it’s why the Stax Museum is a welcome addition to the nation’s cultural landscape. Soulsville takes it on faith that there is an audience out there ready to receive it. Early screenings have proven that to be the case. To call Soulsville an effective museum piece is not to diminish its palpable vitality, and I suspect that many viewers will, after the museum, head straight for the record store, where they’ll bashfully purchase a pile of CDs they should have owned years ago. I did.