‘Stax: Soulsville, U.S.A.’ Review: Looking for a Little Respect

Multipart music documentaries come at us these days with the insistence and abundance of the old K-tel collections, scrambling to satisfy the cravings of every variety of pop nostalgist. Recent months have added “James Brown: Say It Loud” (A&E), “In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon” (MGM+), “Kings From Queens: The Run DMC Story” (Peacock) and “Thank You, Goodnight: The Bon Jovi Story” (Hulu), among others, to the rotation.

That’s four Rock & Roll Hall of Fame acts right there. But if you are looking for something even bigger — the arc of America across the 1960s and ’70s, set to a rough and infectious soundtrack — I know a place: “Stax: Soulsville, U.S.A.,” premiering Monday on HBO.

The stormy, relatively short history of Stax Records (it went from founding to bankruptcy in 18 years) is rich material, shaped by a serendipitous blend of personality, geography and studio acoustics and propelled by the regional dynamics of race, class and music in Memphis, away from the record-industry centers of New York and Los Angeles.

The director Jamila Wignot, who has profiled Alvin Ailey for “American Masters” and directed episodes of Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s “Finding Your Roots,” brings more organizational sense than imaginative flair to the four-episode series. “Soulsville, U.S.A.” gives a conventional talking-heads treatment to a story that calls out for more. But that story, tracking from innocence to cynicism and triumph to calamity, is so involving that Wignot’s straightforward approach isn’t fatal.

And the interviewees doing the talking are a notably varied and engaging group. They include the white farm boy Jim Stewart, earnest, folksy and disastrously naïve, who founded the label with his sister Estelle Axton; the charismatic Black businessman Al Bell, who came on as promotions director and saved the company when it seemed doomed, only to preside over its eventual demise; and Booker T. Jones, leader of the house band Booker T. and the M.G.’s, who looms over the early episodes like a cool, cryptic, scholarly guru of soul.

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