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 during its very long run. 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 “American Soul,” which premiered 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.”
Jonathan Prince, who with Devon Greggory co-created “American Soul,” also co-created “American Dreams.” Like the earlier show, it follows the young amateur dancers 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”) we join Cornelius (Sinqua Walls) on the last day of his life, Feb. 1, 2012, as he tearfully re-watches his show. We flash back to Chicago, January 1971, where the local version of “Soul Train” is 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, although this jaunt is mostly just to introduce club owner Gerald Aims (Jason Dirden). He then rocks back to Gary, Ind., to pitch Gladys Knight (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.”
Show business is made of art and money, and “American Soul” does capture some of that duality.
There is a lot of other drama, 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.
Corny in its broad strokes, with narrative twists that will shock no viewer familiar with TV, “Soul” is often appealing. The dialogue has a natural, twisty flow when it’s not bent under the weight of exposition or stretching too far toward profundity. The performances are fine all around. Even as the production can feel pasteboard — it’s certainly modestly budgeted — “American Soul” is watchable at most any given moment.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays