STAX: Soulsville, U.S.A. Review | Where Everything is Everything

by Andrew Parker

STAX: Soulsville, U.S.A. takes a spirited, in-depth, warts-and-all look at some of the greatest American R&B music ever created and the upstart record label that went toe-to-toe with industry titans (and almost won). An epic story of repeated successes and colossal failures, this limited series from filmmaker Jamila Wignot (Ailey) casts a wide net to look at all aspects of the venerable STAX record label, which only lasted in an unadulterated, independent form from the late 1950s to the late 70s, but turned out some of the most enduring and powerful music ever produced by black artists. STAX: Soulsville, U.S.A. pays reverence to those who made it such an influential brand, but is also willing to examine the financial and racist power structures that helped contribute to its demise.

Based out of an old theatre and record shop in Memphis, Tennessee, STAX was the brainchild of Jim Stewart, a white, self-described “country music loving hillbilly” who wanted to turn the city into a recording Mecca on the level of Nashville. Quickly realizing that country music wasn’t going to work out for him, Stewart quickly pivoted and started using the label as a platform for black artists that were routinely marginalized and overlooked. With financial help from his sister, Estelle Axton, Stewart’s vision quickly blossomed into a racially diverse organization that put out landmark records and singles from the likes of Rufus and Carla Thomas, Booker T and the M.G.’s, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, The Staple Singers, and Isaac Hayes. Thanks to STAX, Memphis joined the ranks of New York, London, Los Angeles, and Nashville as one of the top five music recording markets in the world, which made the indie label an unusual partner and frequent target of larger major labels who wanted a piece of the action.

STAX: Soulsville U.S.A. is a work of great scholarship and history that creates strong ties between such varied topics as popular culture, race relations, office politics, American history, and business ethics and makes every bit of it compelling. Wignot has lots to discuss to paint a complete picture, and while it makes for a sometimes daunting series to binge watch, she has been given a considerate amount of time and a wealth of resources to pull from in a bid to leave no stone unturned. STAX: Soulsville U.S.A. makes time to discuss key artists, notable works, and the wealth of accolades the mom-and-pop styled label amassed over the decades, but Wignot also provides a highly detailed behind-the-scenes look at what was going on in the offices and within the marketplace at the time to provide a richer context.

Wignot relies heavily on interviews – both current and archival – from those who were there from the beginning to the end, with Booker T and embattled marketing executive/vice president Al Bell going into refreshingly candid detail about the ups and downs of the business. The interview subjects in STAX: Soulsville U.S.A. paint a picture of a company where success and heartbreak often went hand in hand. While it was a revolutionary company where blacks and whites worked together in the South during a time of widespread segregation, that doesn’t mean there weren’t racial tensions within the offices or some of the bands. STAX artists often crossed over with white audiences in previously untapped markets for black artists, thanks to counterculture movements and pirate radio in the UK, but the music often didn’t travel well within certain areas of the United States. A falling out with Atlantic Records, their major label distributor for a time, led to STAX losing control of their entire back catalogue, forcing them to start from scratch. That inspired a comeback for the ages, but tandem battles with a major label and a corrupt bank would spell doom for STAX, and pretty much kill the company for good. (It still “exists,” but really in name only.)

STAX was a company that continually evolved by paying attention to the needs of the black community that largely comprised its audience, something evident by their landmark Wattstax concert, a charity event to benefit a neighbourhood that their records never fully broke into in the first place. They never became the major player Stewart and Bell envisioned when the company started taking off, but their output is as beloved today as it was back then, and probably even more so over time. STAX: Soulsville U.S.A. looks at major events like Wattstax, and tracks like “Green Onions,” “Walk On By,” “Woman to Woman,” and “Theme from Shaft” and shows how they shaped the lives of the people involved with them. Otis Redding’s posthumous smash “Dock of the Bay” hits particularly hard after watching Wignot’s series once the context and history of the song’s creation is examined in great detail. Every song and every moment created by STAX has a story to tell, and Wignot wants to include as many as she possibly can across four episodes.

STAX: Soulsville U.S.A. isn’t a cautionary tale. While the label made some poor decisions, there were plenty of developments leading to their downfall that were out of the hands of everyone involved, leading to a bittersweet conclusion. But even though Wignot’s series ends on a sad note, there’s so much joy, reverence, and respect paid to those who bled and sweat every day for the company that it’s hard not to see this as anything short of an inspirational story. Winner of the TV Premiere Audience Award at SXSW earlier this spring, STAX: Soulsville U.S.A. is an example of a rousing, crowd pleasing work that seeks to match the tremendous efforts of its subjects as part of a loving, honest tribute. It’s a series that could’ve easily devolved into easily digestible hero worship, but just like STAX records, Wignot goes the extra mile for authenticity.

STAX: Soulsville, U.S.A. is now available to stream in Canada on Crave. It is available on HBO MAX in the U.S.

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