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The Story of 'Soul Train' Finally Arrives with 'American Soul' on BET
February 5, 2019  | By David Hinckley
 

Viewers of the ‘70s music show Soul Train never ran out of things at which to poke fun – starting with Don Cornelius’s lapels, which were about a city block wide.

But viewers kept viewing because Soul Train also delivered something more important, which was music and a surrounding culture that had been too rarely showcased on national television.

Perfect? No. Valuable? Absolutely.

The same might be said of American Soul, a new miniseries about Soul Train that premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on BET.

It can get soapy and clichéd. In the end, though, it adds up to a credible and important story about how Cornelius created the show and turned it into a cultural institution.

Among other things, it reminds us that getting a black music showcase into national syndication had, let’s say, its own particular challenges. Kind of like being black, in general.

Cornelius (Sinqua Walls), who created and hosted Soul Train, would eventually become a cultural icon himself, occasionally almost a caricature.

American Soul rescues him from that odd sort of historical limbo, painting him as a flawed, but serious man with a vision.

He’s a salesman, to be sure, with a slick pitch for everyone from his wife Delores (Perri Camper) to Gladys Knight (Kelly Rowland), whom he talks into becoming the crucial first guest on this untested and pretty much unprecedented program.

Simmering with ambition, Cornelius sees Soul Train as the way to leave his mark. He also has a genuine affection and respect for the music he’ll be selling, and he’s frustrated that it has never gotten the television respect it has earned.

Soul singers had been featured on television for years, once shows from Ed Sullivan to American Bandstand realized they were popular in mainstream culture. They had just never had a national platform where soul and rhythm and blues were the focus.

Nor did Soul Train just showcase music. The other half of the show, a full partner, was the Soul Train dancers. They were an amazing bunch, stars equal to the singers, and American Soul wisely gives their story equal time in the buildup to the launch.

The dance part of the tale revolves around Tessa Lauren (Iantha Richardson), hired by Cornelius to recruit dancers and subject to ongoing verbal abuse as Cornelius takes out his larger frustrations.

This makes her a focal point, along with a young singing trio called Encore, which includes Kendall Clarke (Jelani Winston), his sister Simone (Katlyn Nichol) and her boyfriend “JT” Tucker (Christopher Jefferson).

They’re electrifying performers. They also have melodramatic personal stories. Kendall has a young son, but the mother won’t marry him, which means he may get drafted and sent to Vietnam. JT, a clean-cut kid, has his own ongoing domestic crisis.

In fact, pretty much everyone in American Soul has a story back home, which sometimes leaves the Soul Train part of the narrative scrambling for airtime.

It uses that time well, however, making sure we get a good sampling of the music (“Smiling Faces,” “Neither One Of Us,” “Have You Seen Her?”) that gave Soul Train such a strong foundation.

Then, as if all that weren’t enough, American Soul also has a shadowy dimension, the one where Cornelius must deal with the amoral underworld of the music business to make the connections that will actually get his show on the air.

That angle is embodied in and centered on Gerald Aims (Jason Dirden) owner of the 100 Proof nightclub and a player in the part of the business that involves cocaine, available women, and musclemen who tie up debtors and toss them in the trunks of cars.

Anyone who has watched the superb Starz show Power will recognize this corner of show biz.

But American Soul isn’t a Mob story, even though it has Mob elements. Hyper-dramatic as it sometimes gets, it never forgets it started out as the story of a man and a dream. Whatever the particulars from there, whatever the specifics of that hard road, the payoff was a keeper.

 
 
 
 
 
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