At the World Cinema Showcase, a visit to Soulsville USA. By BRANNVANAN GNANLINGAM.

THE SIMPLISTIC dichotomy within the 60s Civil Rights movements in the US – integration (Martin Luther King) and ‘separatism’ (Malcolm X) – were loosely matched in the 60s soul music scenes too. On the one hand you had Motown, that glorious label which tried to downplay ‘blackness’ with sunny melodies and unthreatening performers in order to sell records. You also had figures on the other end of the spectrum like James Brown who would go on to sing things like ‘I’m Black and I’m Proud’ as the decade collapsed into assassinations and racial turmoil. Then there was a label which didn’t actually give a shit about the colour of your skin – a mixed race label which produced some of the most seminal soul music of the 60s where artists such as Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Sam and Dave, Booker T. and the MGs, Rufus and Carla Thomas and the Staple Sisters frolicked. That was until racial harmony collapsed. And while this pretty run-of-the-mill documentary carries the whiff of being created for the sole purpose of advertising the re-minted Stax, it does celebrate something much more vital and important: the music.

Kicking off with the seminal Bar-Kays track ‘Soul Finger’, the Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story wisely focuses on the music. And what music there is. Concert footage, for the most part, is allowed to play out fully (unlike many other music documentaries) and we get to witness everything from Otis Redding’s unbelievable Monterey Pop performance of ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’ to Booker T. and the MGs playing their B-side riff which went on to become one of the all-time most famous riffs in rock n roll (‘Green Onions’). Interspersed in the music are interviews from many of the key figures involved such as founders Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, chief in all but name Al Bell, the chief song-writing team Isaac Hayes and David Porter, and many more. We also get the obligatory talking head appearance by Bono.

Stax’s history matches the turbulent racial politics of the time. Set up to record country music in a poor, predominantly ‘black’ neighbourhood by brother and sister Stewart and Axton (the label’s name comes from the first two letters of each name), the label accidentally discovered some of the great names of recording history. (Though Wilson Pickett, an awkward fitting member of the Stax label is ignored by the documentary.) The sudden death of Otis Redding, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. at the label’s Memphis motel retreat, the role of Atlantic Records, the label’s subsequent bankruptcy, Wattstax, blaxploitation all get their due. The first half of the documentary is arguably the more fascinating (but that might be just me who loves the rawness of the early days – a brilliant visual juxtaposition is done of Motown’s Smokey Robinson singing ‘My Girl’ and Otis Redding’s grungy version of the same song to emphasise how earthy Stax were). Visually the documentary was conservative, a collection of archival material and talking heads that talked about how great Stax was, rather than showing it. Aurally though, Stax and the music the documentary showcase has little competition in its justifiably grandiose claim of being Soulsville USA.