Julie Hinds Detroit Free Press
Published 9:00 AM EST Feb 1, 2019
Kelly Rowland as Gladys Knight? Michelle Williams as Diana Ross? K. Michelle as Martha Reeves?
Seeing contemporary singers portray classic Motown stars is one of the pleasures of ”American Soul,” the BET drama that’s set in 1971 and tells the origin story of ”Soul Train.”
Debuting at 9 p.m. Tuesday, the series stars Sinqua Walls from the Starz hit “Power” as Don Cornelius, the producer behind the landmark syndicated dance show that featured African-American artists and dancers and left a deep imprint on popular culture.
The saga of Cornelius and musical numbers are interwoven with subplots driven by fictional characters, including a talented but underappreciated “Soul Train” staffer and three teenagers striving for their big break in show business.
It’s a mash-up of story elements that somehow works. Here’s why.
The blend of styles: If “Empire” married “This Is Us” and invited “Nashville” and the movie “Sparkle” to the wedding, the result would be ”American Soul.” The action begins in 1971 as Cornelius is struggling to turn his local Chicago dance show into a nationally syndicated program. The systemic racism that “Soul Train” encounters in the TV industry is covered, as are the interfering tactics of record labels and the strain that’s put on the Cornelius marriage — and that’s just the first two episodes. Toss in stories tied to the supporting cast and you’ve got what might be TV’s first historical drama/biopic/evening soap/musical.
The legendary star power: It will be a kick to see Destiny’s Child alums Rowland and Williams and ”Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta” vet Michelle play Motown superstars. The season also will feature Bobby Brown as Stax Records singer Rufus Thomas. In the two episodes available to critics, Rowland gives an assured performance as Gladys Knight, a rising star who yearns to have full artistic control of her career. Plus, she gets to sing Knight’s signature hit “Midnight Train to Georgia.”
The man behind the music: In real life, Cornelius was a complicated figure whose final years were troubled. He died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2012. But the series presents him in his prime as an entrepreneur who juggles questionable tactics (like using paid escorts to woo a reluctant white businessman) with a strong sense of social justice. As he tells Knight in the premiere episode, his vision of “Soul Train” is of “black folks the way black folks were meant to be seen: strong, powerful and beautiful.”
The fictional characters: Aside from Cornelius, “American Soul” is populated with made-up characters whose lives touch on subplots involving the Vietnam War, single parenthood, a police shooting, drug addiction and gender equality. Among the standouts? Iantha Richardson of “This Is Us” as Tessa, the “Soul Train” dance coordinator who’s frustrated at being treated more like a secretary, and nine-time Grammy nominee Kelly Price as a tough-love mom.
The trip back to the 1970s: The clothes, the music, the pop-culture references: ”American Soul” brings the me decade back to life. In one scene, Cornelius is at a screening room where a sitcom with an African-American cast called “Sanford and Son” is being previewed for some bigwigs (and he’s none too happy that it’s set in a junkyard). Special kudos to the costume designer for not just getting the synthetic pastel suits and slinky evening gowns right, but for putting the high school-age characters of aspiring entertainers played by Katlyn Nichol, Jelani Winston and Christopher Jefferson in essential ’70s separates. So where can we find those retro-groovy sweater vests?
Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture critic Julie Hinds: 313-222-6427 or [email protected]
9 p.m. Tue.
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