Stax Records, the label responsible for hits such as Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” and Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man,” is getting the docuseries treatment.
HBO is behind a new multi-part series telling the story of the fabled Memphis-based label.
Jamila Wignot, who directed Ailey, a portrait of the legendary choreographer Alvin Ailey and has worked on HBO’s Axios, is directing with OJ: Made In America director Ezra Edelman and producer Caroline Waterlow exec producing. Nigel Sinclair and Nicholas Ferrall of White Horse Pictures, the company behind Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home: Bob Dylan doc are also EPs.
The series will explore the rise and fall of the label, which was founded in 1957 by Jim Stewart. Stewart, a country music fan, and his sister Estelle Axton, who mortgaged her house to afford recording equipment, released “Fool in Love” by the Veltones under its original name Satellite Records. They then took over an old movie theater in Memphis with plans to turn it into a recording studio and discovering a coterie of R&B acts.
They then released Rufus & Carla’s “Cause I Love You” before changing its name to Stax and signing a distribution deal with Atlantic Records.
It went on to release records by Booker T. & the M.G.’s – Booker T was originally a session musician for the label – Redding, who was officially on Stax’s sister label Volt, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers and Sam & Dave. Al Bell joined in 1965 and became co-owner in 1969 when Axton became unhappy with her brother’s vision for the company.
Redding’s death from a plane crash in 1967 and the sale of Atlantic Records to Warner Bros., which led to the discovery that Bell had signed a disastrous deal giving over ownership of his masters, caused setbacks for the company, which was not able to achieve the same level of success as its Detroit rival Motown.
In 1972, the label launched Wattstax, a benefit concert to celebrate the anniversary of the 1965 riots in Watts, LA. It featured Hayes, The Staple Singers and a young Richard Pryor and was filmed for a seminal documentary. However, in 1975/76 it was forced into bankruptcy.
The documentary series – titled Stax – will tell this story and will feature rare and never-before-seen archive material.
It is the latest doc on the record label; Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon directed Respect Yourself in 2007.
Stax, which is currently in production, comes from HBO Documentary Films in association with Concord Originals, the TV and film arm of Stax’s parent company, Polygram Entertainment and Warner Music Entertainment.
Rob Bowman, author of Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records is serving as a consultant on the series, which is exec produced by Scott Pascucci, Sophia Dilley and Michele Smith for Concord Originals, Jody Gerson and David Blackman for Universal Music Group’s Polygram Entertainment and Charlie Cohen and Ron Broitman for Warner Music Entertainment. David Peck, Jeanne Elfant Festa and Cassidy Hartmann will act as co-executive producers. Wignot will also serve as a producer on the project, alongside series producer Kara Elverson.
“In both the sound that fueled its rise and the events that triggered its demise, Stax Records manifested the soul of America,“ said Ezra Edelman. “There is no better person to bring this quintessential American story to HBO’s viewers than Jamila Wignot, whose work I’ve long admired.”
“As a lifelong fan of Stax Records, what has most inspired me about the label is its defiance,” added Jamila Wignot. “The individuals who built Stax knew their worth and had a willingness to risk everything to make something on their own terms.”
White Horse Pictures, the production company behind recent documentaries about the Beatles, Lucille Ball and the Bee Gees, is producing another look at a legendary entertainer: Gene Wilder.
Library Films’ Chris Smith, the filmmaker behind projects such as “Bad Vegan” and “100 Foot Wave,” is directing the documentary about the star of “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” and “Young Frankenstein,” which will be told through the perspective of Jordan Walker-Pearlman, the late actor’s nephew and a filmmaker in his own right.
The documentary is produced in association with Sobey Road Entertainment, Harlem Hollywood and Mojo Global Arts. White Horse president and partner Nicholas Ferrall and partner Cassidy Hartmann will produce alongside Smith and Sobey Road’s Andrew Trapani. White Horse partners Nigel Sinclair and Jeanne Elfant Festa serve as executive producers alongside Mojo Global Arts’ Morris Ruskin and Joseph Mellicker. Joey Scoma will serve as editor and John Keller as co-executive producer.
“Wilder” came to White Horse via Trapani who knew Walker-Pearlman. The latter visited his uncle, married to “SNL” star Gilda Radner from 1984 until her 1989 death, at every film set until his 2016 death and had previously turned down several offers to participate in documentaries about him. The documentary follows Wilder’s journey from neurotic outsider, to leading man, to an artist searching for meaning on and off screen.
“To trust other filmmakers with something as sacred to me as my relationship with Gene was not easy, but working with Chris Smith, White Horse Pictures and Andy Trapani has been an incredibly organic experience,” says Walker-Pearlman. “I look forward to seeing Gene’s inner spirit shine on screen for what I hope will be his final great performance.”
For White Horse, “Wilder” is the latest step in a journey that began in 2014 when producers Nigel Sinclair and Guy East, whose credits included Martin Scorsese’s “George Harrison: Living in the Material World” and “No Direction Home: Bob Dylan,” stepped away from their co-chair positions at Exclusive Media to form the company.
At White Horse, the approach is what they describe as “collegial,” a horizontal relationship where all four of the Los Angeles-based partners — Sinclair, Ferrall, Elfant Festa and Hartmann — are involved in all the projects, with one person in the lead. “We all get involved, led by the director, and we all give our thoughts and basically the film becomes like a statue that you’ve got the rough outline of, and now you’re chiseling away, making it perfect.” Sinclair told Variety. “Our system allows us each to bring our individual strengths to every project, and every project is able to benefit from that,” adds Hartmann.
This approach has led to resounding successes including Ron Howard’s “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years” (2016) and “Pavarotti” (2019), Roger Ross Williams’s “The Apollo” (2019), Frank Marshall’s “The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” (2020) and Amy Poehler’s “Lucy and Desi,” which bowed at Sundance earlier this year.
“Our team building skills enable us to build a family of partners in each respective film, which then serves the director, and the director’s vision of the film,” says Elfant Festa. The directors are in agreement. For example, Elfant Festa made a discovery that transformed “Lucy and Desi.” “Directing ‘Lucy and Desi’ has been an incredibly fulfilling journey for me, and White Horse Pictures brought their expertise into every situation on the project,” says Poehler. “In particular, the discovery of Lucille Ball’s personal audiotapes by Jeanne helped define the narrative approach and allowed Lucy to tell her own story.”
The White Horse team’s “single-minded commitment to story and excellent creative instincts,” as Marshall describes it, brings filmmakers back for more. “When Nigel brought ‘The Beatles: Eight Days A Week’ concept for me to direct, it was an opportunity to tell a new kind of story around a group of artists I absolutely loved and revered,” says Howard, who also served as an executive producer on “Lucy and Desi.” “We had an incredible partnership and creative collaboration on that film and then again on our follow up doc ‘Pavarotti.’”
White Horse has an as-yet-untitled Billy Preston documentary in the works alongside “Shari and Lamb Chop,” about beloved ventriloquist Shari Lewis and her popular sock puppet Lamb Chop. The company is also moving into narrative features with “The Queen Mary,” the first in a trilogy of horror films inspired by the hauntings on-board the infamous ocean liner, which is in post.
“We need to take the viewer on a journey of discovery. And it’s really about us discovering what the project is about and what matters and not coming in with preconceived notions,” says Ferrall.
CAA Media Finance and White Horse are repping the rights for distribution.