Review: ‘American Soul’ brings the drama behind ‘Soul Train,’ the ‘hippest trip in America,’ to BET
Kids today can pull out a phone and watch pop stars sing and dance anyway, anyhow, anywhere they choose. But TV was small once, and such appearances were rare — and all the more psychically powerful for it.
Born in Chicago, transplanted to Hollywood and syndicated everywhere, “Soul Train,” from 1971 to 2003, was a seemingly simple jukebox dance show that became one of the most culturally significant TV shows of its very long time. A beacon of young black music, dance and fashion, it lit up the nation with “love, peace and soul,” in the words with which creator and velvet-baritone host (until 1997) Don Cornelius ended each weekly broadcast.
Now the “hippest trip in America” has become the basis of a different kind of television program, “American Soul,” premiering Tuesday on BET. Joining “Empire,” “Star,” “Power” and “Pose” in a small congregation of black TV music and nightclub dramas, the series is a conceptual sequel to NBC’s 2002 pop-musical drama “American Dreams,” which was set in mid-1960s Philadelphia, against the backdrop of “American Bandstand.”
Indeed, Jonathan Prince, who with Devon Greggory (“Harry’s Law,” “Being Mary Jane,” “Underground”) co-created “American Soul,” also co-created “American Dreams.”And like the earlier show, it follows the young amateur dancers out of the studio in their soap-opera-complicated lives and employs pop stars of more recent vintage as stand-ins for pop stars of less recent vintage. But where the private life of Dick Clark was not grist for “Dreams,” Cornelius is very much at the center of “Soul.”
After a title-card epigram quoting Nietzsche (“Without music, life would be a mistake”) — because, sure, why not — we join Cornelius (Sinqua Walls) on the last day of his life, Feb. 1, 2012, as he tearfully rewatches old footage from his show. From there we flash back to a happier-day Chicago, January 1971, where the local version of “Soul Train” is already in progress, with “Chicago’s very own … Chi-Lites!”
But the Windy City cannot hold him. “Fourteen cities, all we need is a Top 10 act — they want us by the fourth quarter!” declares based-on-a-real-person George Johnson of Johnson Products, makers of Afro-Sheen, and the show’s cornerstone backer and sponsor. (Most other characters here are inventions or reinventions.) In pursuit of that Top 10 act, Cornelius will head out to L.A., where he has been promised a meeting with James Brown, though this jaunt is mostly just to introduce Gerald Aims (Jason Dirden), a philosophical club owner who provides a combination of comic relief and criminal-element (or criminal-element-adjacent) tension. He then rocks back to Gary, Ind., to pitch Gladys Knight (a lookalike Kelly Rowland).
“Ownership, Miss Knight,” Cornelius says of the dream he has. “That is the way that we can truly overcome, by keeping the power with us. … I’m talking about bringing us not whitewashed, not toned-down, but us into millions of homes, like it or not. Black folks the way black folks was meant to be seen — strong, powerful, and beautiful.”
Later there will be some nonsensical difficulties over what song Knight will sing on the show, in order to inject drama into a milieu that actually requires a lack of drama to function efficiently. (I am the perhaps rare person who would find the less obviously dramatic show business story more interesting and … dramatic.) Almost unavoidably the series engages in antics that have animated backstage stories since before Ruby Keeler went out a kid and came back a star. Show business, which is made of art and money, is an enterprise better and worse than pictured here, but “American Soul” does capture some of the flavor of that duality.
But there is a lot of other drama in “American Soul,” centered mainly on brother and sister Kendall (Jelani Winston) and Simone Clarke (Katlyn Nichol), who have a singing group with their friend JT (Christopher Jefferson) and think dancing on “Soul Train” might help them get noticed. (Historically, it helped Rosie Perez, Jody Watley, M.C. Hammer and Fred “Rerun” Berry.) Kendall has just received his draft notice; JT, who has asked Simone to go steady (“Older boys expect certain things,” warns her mother), is working as many hours he can get at Ma Mable’s Kitchen to make his family’s rent and is not interested in “dancing on some teeny-bop TV show.” But he will fall in with some self-styled revolutionaries who might be about to form the Crips.
Gathering the dancers is Tessa Lorraine (Iantha Richardson), whose classical training has not prepared her for being talked down to by her new boss, as well as by the series’ “caviar-eatin’, golf- playin’, Frank Sinatra-lovin’ token Caucasian, Brooks Donald (James Devoti) — the old Get Me a Coffee, Sweetie scene — who will help Cornelius land national, which is to say white, advertisers.
Corny in its broad strokes, with narrative twists that will shock no viewer familiar with television, it is often appealing in its particulars; the dialogue has a natural, twisty flow when it’s not bent under the weight of exposition or stretching too far toward profundity. (“Every day we play Russian roulette with our souls, and most of us will lose.”) Even as the production can feel pasteboard — it’s certainly modestly budgeted — “American Soul” is watchable at most any given moment.
The performances are fine all around. As Cornelius, Walls plays almost a double role — or perhaps a triple one; he is not exactly the same person at home and at work, and definitely a different one onstage. Rowland, who has more than a cameo role to play and who has done a little acting in years past (she stood in for Martha Reeves in “American Dreams”), is relaxed and natural, and ought to do more in years to come.
Only two episodes were available for review as of this writing, and obviously things that are complicated to start will be even more complicated later, and characters will deepen with added history. For now “American Soul” is not a “stone gas,” but it’s good to have until a better version arrives, and that may well never happen.
When: 9 and 10 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14)
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