Tuesday evening BET premiered it’s highly-anticipated series documenting the legendary life and perilous death of Soul Train creator Don Cornelius. American Soul takes a look back on the rocky beginnings, sudden rise and unfortunate fall of the funkiest ride around. At a time when the TV landscape was paler than current White House interns, Cornelius’ innovation shifted the cultural and political makeup of American pop culture.
With Black musicians unable to book the mainstream success of an American Bandstand, (watch NBC’s brilliant short-lived series American Dreams) Soul Train trail-blazed a path for musicians, comedians and most importantly dancers to forge their own way to stardom. The show stars Sinqua Walls as Cornelius, the brilliant mind with a strong sense of pride and love for his community. As he shaped a space where one did not exist, his greatest intentions soon became hazardous to those he aimed to uplift. Power, fame and the need to maintain it doomed Cornelius as he took his own life in 2012.
Fans and Soul Train devotees wondered how this pillar of black culture succumbed to such a troubling end. Unbeknownst to many (or just me), Don dabbled in some nefarious deeds. But what black music story isn’t intrinsically-laced with drugs, crime and the wandering eye. Many enthusiasts pondered at first glance if the show would explore those darker themes about this Black American hero. American Soul delivered their answer in the pilot’s final scene.
The first two episodes follow Don as he plans to shift his Chicago-based show to the big time: Los Angeles. Leaving his wife and two children behind, he traverses the LAPD, temptation and the fight to find his voice. Here we see Kelly Rowland as Gladys Knight – the station’s first guest. Early on we are to believe Cornelius held a higher adoration for the songstress.
Amidst the show’s story, we follow three friends who seek stardom via the Soul Train sound stage. Struggling to survive the post-Civil Right landscape, strive for their dreams to get beyond crippling societal ills. My dad thinks these three may be based on R&B group Shalamar, who were discovered after being dancers on the show.
The acting is good along with strong, yet few musical numbers. It’s a joy to see Jason Dirden (Greenleaf) take on another shady role as a local club owner. And Kelly Price as the matriarch of the Clark family gets to stretch her acting chops. We can also expect other cameos from the likes of Michelle Williams, Bobby Brown and Gabrielle Dennis. Only qualms early on is with editing, and of course the annoyingly numerous commercial breaks. While it’s worth to watch with Twitter, I almost feel the story would be more cohesive as a binge for later.
Watch American Soul Tuesdays @ 9 p.m. on BET