Wattstax - The Special Edition:
Picking Up The Trail
Motion picture executives call on film restoration expert Tom Christopher when they need to hunt down critically important, "lost" film footage. Over the years, he's found misplaced footage desperately needed to complete the restoration of Star Wars - Special Editon and located additional scenes for Milos Forman's director's cut of the Academy Award-winning Amadeus. But when he was asked by Bill Belmont, an executive from Berkeley-based Fantasy Records, to take a few hours and see if he could locate concert footage from the seldom viewed 1973 concert film Wattstax, it seemed a particularly quixotic request.
Christopher was still at work on Amadeus, The Director's Cut at The Saul Zaentz Film Center in Berkeley and was flying weekly to Los Angeles to oversee color correction and print quality work being completed at film laboratories. Belmont swore that during a business trip, he'd once seen a pallet of boxes labeled Wattstax sitting in the corner of an unused Warner Brothers sound stage in Burbank. The task seemed straightforward enough until he mentioned his sighting of the materials occurred during the mid-seventies. He then added an additional request - keep an eye out for the "lost ending."
Originally, the movie ended with Hayes performing his hit songs "Theme From Shaft" and "Soulsville" to a rapt audience of over 100,000 people. But, the day after the film premiered in Los Angeles, disaster struck. MGM threatened to sue Stax over the rights to use the two Isaac Hayes songs, both of which had first appeared in their hit movie Shaft. Facing a ruinous lawsuit, the producers of Wattstax decided to drop the Isaac Hayes numbers. A new ending, which only partially delivered the emotional power found in the original ending, was hastily shot on a sound stage and spliced onto the end of the film. The expunged ending was never screened again and eventually "lost."
The Hunt For The Wattstax Lost Ending
Not surprisingly, Christopher discovered that the boxes once stored on the Warner Brothers sound stage were long gone. But, despite the cold trail, he was hooked on the hunt. The film had to be somewhere, so he continued searching for the missing material when time allowed. He carefully read Soulsville, the history of Stax Records written by music scholar Rob Bowman, looking for clues. He called studios and laboratories, reviewed old inventory records and contacted film vaults in Berkeley, Los Angeles, New York and Indiana.
After months of research, he finally got a break. While sitting in a Burbank film lab waiting to screen newly timed restored scenes of Amadeus, he got an excited call from his assistant Tim Fox in Berkeley. An inventory list requested months before had finally arrived and seemed to suggest a big cache of Wattstax elements were held at a storage facility in the Los Angeles area. A few phone calls later, Christopher confirmed the elements were being held at Pro-Tek, a huge film-handling and storage facility in Burbank that, as fortune would have it, was located just down the block from the lab he was calling from.
He arrived at Pro-Tek at 9AM the next morning. Their staff walked him down to a cavernous, refrigerated storage area filled with pallets and pallets of film elements waiting to be reboxed, bar coded and shipped to long-term storage facilities. The warehouse was uncomfortably cool. There, next to boxes from Willie Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, sat the long-missing boxes of Wattstax.
Christopher spent the next three hours shivering in the cold and taking copious notes about what he was discovering. Twelve rolls of cut 16mm camera original, crates of 1/4" production sound, dozens of cartons simply labeled "original" and unlabeled boxes stuffed with 35mm trims. Could the "lost ending" be in one of these boxes?
The Search Bogs Down
It was a tremendous find, but further investigation had to wait. First, permission to physically examine the materials had to be obtained from Warner Brothers. Warners had inherited the physical ownership of the materials when they purchased the David L. Wolper Film Company, one of the original producers of Wattstax.
Then came the holidays, the Amadeus project continued to require attention and suddenly, months had passed. While Tom's attention was elsewhere, the Wattstax elements were moved again; some materials sent to the Warner Brothers vault on the Burbank lot, but most of the materials shipped across the country to a former salt mine in Indiana now used as a long-term film storage facility.
There was more bad news. Christopher discovered there were no production logs or paperwork of any kind and the inventories of the now inaccessible materials were incomplete, lacking critical information that would allow him to ascertain which box or boxes might contain the "lost ending."
The only course of action was to begin to pull and examine materials. While on the Warner Brothers Burbank lot for a screening of Amadeus, The Director's Cut, Christopher convinced a building manager to loan him an editing room for a few weeks. He then requested dozens of Wattstax inventory items to be pulled from the Warner Brothers storage vaults and sent to his editing room.
Every week or two, when he was in Burbank and when his Amadeus related tasks were completed, he would go to his cutting room to examine and catalog film elements. A few weeks turned into four weeks and then a month, and then two months. His progress was slow, but he learned enough to convince people the project could move forward.
Ultimately, the entire Wattstax vault inventory; everything in Burbank and Indiana, was shipped to The Saul Zaentz Film Center in Berkeley for cataloging and examination. Useful items were found, including twenty-plus hours of original concert negative and the original mono optical sound track containing the expiated songs, but no picture for the "lost ending." The search continued.
One day, he came across several boxes filled with rolls of 35mm film rolled up and bound with crumbling pieces of paper tape. He carefully unwrapped one of the rolls of film. It was the edgecoding numbers that grabbed his attention. Edgecoating is an editorial procedure where a sequence of numbers are permanently printed onto the edge of motion picture film to track pieces of film and the sequence they're assembled in. He examined the film closer and realized the film was internegative, a film stock used to print films. It was the "lost ending," or most of it.
The original 1973 editing crew had edgecoated the internegative before cutting off the contested ending. Some sections of that ending were reused to complete the "new" ending; crowd and audience reaction shots from the original ending were intercut with footage from the hastily shot re-shoot. Between the discovery of the original mono optical soundtrack and the little rolls of edgecoated internegative, Christopher was able to create a roadmap to methodically piece together the original final ten minutes of Wattstax.
Unearthed And Revitalized
Christopher's quest was complete. The lost Isaac Hayes performance of "Theme From Shaft" is, as expected, wonderful, but the missing footage revealed an unexpected pleasure - Hayes' superb rendition of "Soulsville," a straight from the heart, poetic summation of not only the movie which proceeds it, but the black experience in urban America.
Following the reconstruction of the lost ending, excitement began to build among the rightsholders of the film, Columbia Pictures and Fantasy, Inc. Company executives decided to take this definitive version of Wattstax back to the public. Extensive repair and cleaning of the entire picture negative was completed and the thirty-year-old soundtrack was digitally re-mastered from the original concert two-inch 16 track masters to Dolby 5.1 surround presentation.
A year after Christopher began his search for the missing concert footage, the restored Wattstax was chosen by Sundance programmers to become part of a select group of important independent films known as The Sundance Collection. A 35mm print of Wattstax - The Special Edition screened multiple times at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival to enthusiastic, sold-out audiences.
The thirtieth anniversary release of Wattstax - The Special Edition is a collaboration between Sony Pictures Entertainment and Fantasy, Inc. Fantasy is one of the largest independent record companies in the United States and the parent company of over a dozen unique record labels including Stax Records.
Wattstax - The Special Edition is a movie that captures a special time in African-American history that's been overlooked for too long. Music and film lovers of all backgrounds love the volatile mix of fashion, funky music and radical politics that make this film truly unique.