Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Soul Train - The Hippest Trip in America (VH1)

(Review by Jake Austen) I was really excited when VH1 contacted me after my Soul Train in Chicago article came out and told me they were making this documentary. Of course, I had a little dread that it would be filled with faux-nostalgia and goofy afro-wig jokes, but I trusted that anyone with access to the amazing, transcedental footage featured on the show would do the right thing and make a righteous testament to the best music show ever produced. Overall, it was much better than I expected, and I was really pleased with it. I would have liked for it to be longer, and I was surprised by some omissions (there certainly should have been more of dancer Damita Jo Freeman – her cameos with James Brown and Joe Tex are all-time highlights). But mostly, I constantly found my wishes being fulfilled. Clips of host Don Cornelius going down the Soul Train line, the manic crowd during L.L. Cool J’s debut, and the bizarre Don vs. Marvin Gaye in basketball episode were great to see. I had done plenty of research on the Dick Clark Soul Unlimited fiasco, where he responded to Soul Train's ratings, by producing a copy-cat show, but had never seen footage, and it was great to see the awesome set Clark built. I thought almost all of the little segments were interesting and well edited:Soul Train pop locking/robot dancing and its influence on Michael Jackson/Don’s hostility towards Hip Hop, with killer footage of Kurtis Blow taking a blow to his ego/the Afro Sheen commercials – which avoided camp by showing the sincere devotion of Quest Love and others to these remarkable black-audience commercials. While they did shortchange the 80s, leaving out or downplaying some of the most memorable dancers, and they blew off the post-Cornelius years (half-mocking replacement Shemar Moore), it’s understandable why they would want to focus on the early 70s when the show was at its aesthetic peak (I love when the performers are framed by the dancers’ wild, staccato movements – you feel sorry for them for being told not to look at these legendary artists, but it sure paid off visually). And I thought the balance of informed, thoughtful musicians, and youthful, intelligent academics (like Imani Perry and Tricia Rose) really did a good job of explaining how important this show was without ever reverting to the empty nostalgia of VH1’s “I Love the 80’s/Best Week Ever” scripted talking head hooey. Most impressive, after so many years of bitter, angry and sullen interviews and sound bites, was Don Cornelius’ relaxed, funny and sharp reflections. While he may not have been giving the deepest or most insightful answers, he was really demonstrating a true storyteller’s skills, and he knew which anecdotes were the killers. I especially loved his admission that he thought L.A. kids were terrible dancers and didn’t want anything to do with the funky dance style that quickly made the show a phenomenon. Basically, it really seemed like selling the Soul Train empire a couple years back has taken a weight off his shoulders, and it was nice to see a public Don Cornelius relaxed and loose.

As far as the documentary acting like Gino Vannelli in 1975 was the first white guest, when in fact Dennis Coffey was, I think they really meant Gino was the first white sex symbol/crossover star (I watched this in a room full of older black women and they all squealed with nostalgic excitement when Vannelli came onscreen). Considering the way press reviews of the documentary latched onto that brief section of the film covering white guests it was wise for them to use someone better known than Coffey for this clip, though Coffey obviously had a more awesome record to perform ("Scorpio," in 1972) than his poodle-haired successor.
I was also pleased that they covered the days of Soul Train in Chicago at length, though I was dissapointed not to see any pictures or footage I hadn't already seen (they used alot of stack footage that looked like it was from the period to show a TV studio from the 60s and people watching TV). All the images of the local Chicago Soul Train episodes used in the film were photos I found during my research and lent to the production (in the film Cornelius says no footage exists of Chicago episodes, but I was told otherwise by company that bought Soul Train; I suspect the producers didn’t want to deal with costly transfers from archaic video formats).

Please see the show if you can. I doubt it will make it onto DVD. I also want to share my experiences at the L.A. Premiere of the film on January 29th at the Paley TV museum in Beverly Hills. I learned about the screening at the last minute and was able to get in because of my involvement in the research for the movie. I got there early and there were plenty of dancers there, most dressed in suits and sharp dresses, but it was notable that Louie Carr was dressed like the show was shooting a new episode, sleeveless, with signature shades and hat. Following the film was a panel in which Don Cornelius, Jody Watley, Smokey Robinson, Cuba Gooding, Sr. and Quest Love (who helped with the score of the documentary) were to be interviewed by journalist Cheo Coker. When I arrived I hung out at an hors d’oeurves and vodka reception, where I spoke to an awesome older Japanese guy named Aki, who in 1973 (while he was at UCLA as a student) arranged for Soul Train, Midnight Special and ABC In Concert to air on Japanese TV, making all our beloved ST bootlegs possible. They ran from 1973-1983, he told me. Aki also mentioned that in addition to the forthcoming Time-Life Soul Train DVDs (which will feature clips, not whole episodes) he is arranging for an Asian DVD set, which will not have the same footage (it is being assembled separately, he thought) but there is no release date yet. He was also proud to have first put The Sound of Music on Japanese TV. And he mentioned that when he went to Cornelius’ home to sign the contracts in ’73, Cornelius conducted the entire meeting in pajamas, which impressed Aki (he was also pleased that when he spoke to Don at this event, Don remembered him). At the reception big screen TVs showed what seemed to be teaser reels for a proposed DVD set Don Cornelius Productions must have assembled years ago. The clips were grouped together with titles like “The Comedy Years” (with Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, and Arsenio Footage), “The Jacksons Years” (with J5, Janet and other siblings footage), and less likely titles like “The Bill Withers Years” and the “The Ike and Tina Years.”

I unfortunately had to sit in the overflow room during the screening, but was able to sneak into the theater for the panel discussion/Q&A. It was nothing short of spectacular. Coker was over his head and had no idea how to moderate this thing and basically gave up almost instantly. Upon asking Cornelius the first question, Don just started reminiscing and pontificating and going from topic to topic to topic. Like the documentary, he shared many very good stories, that had nice punchlines and good rhythm, but he also would go off on tangent after tangent, and would rarely get back to his original point. The second (and last question) was aimed at Robinson, and before Smokey could speak Don cut him off with a lengthy digression. While it instantly became a raucous joke that Don would keep cutting off everyone and not let them talk, it also was pretty revealing, as Cornelius seemed unable to yield the floor. There was lots of joshing and ribbing and insult humor between Smokey and Don. Gooding was a little nutty, delivering his tributes to Cornelius and his legacy with unfocussed eyes, in an almost threatening tone, but as Cornelius and others made clear, the lead singer of the Main Ingredient was genuinely regarded as one of the most gifted vocalists of his day, so despite being the butt of a few jokes (and despite at one point shilling for his QVC channel 70s Soul compilation home shopping show) he was treated with respect. Watley kept quiet during most of the more chaotic passages, but when she did speak she had an almost regal bearing, bringing dignity to a bar room bull session of a panel. As she did in the documentary she revealed that the jealousy she perceived being directed at her from other dancers weighs heavy on her Soul Train memories, but she had some nice things to say. The best panelist may have been the Roots drummer. It turns out Quest Love has been a collector of ST episodes since the days when you would pay a thick wad of bills for shitty dubs of shows. He was a super expert, and even said that for the seven years they were recording the D'Angelo record at least five hours each work day was spent watching old Soul Trains for inspiration (they had planned to have “D’Angelo perform “Untitled” at the Grammys with a 40 piece orchestra set up exactly like the Barry White ST, but backed down). At one point Quest Love asked Cornelius about the philosophy behind keeping his cool demeanor and doing a straight interview even when groups were outrageous and surreal, like the Undisputed Truth in their KISS/LaBelle costumes, or the Mandrill performance where one guy was in a gorilla suit. Quest's question was super long and detailed and at the end of it Cornelius paused for a beat and said, deadpan, "Who's Mandrill?"

Then they went to the audience and most of the questions were not questions, but rather dancers from the show standing up and announcing who they were and expecting applause (which they deserved and got) and then praising Don, or telling an anecdote about themselves. Most just wanted Don to acknowledge them. Fawn Quinones started off telling Don “I know you remember this voice,” and too-cool Don told her he remembered her. But he tried to deny her anecdote, in which he asked her brother Shabba Doo “Where is your crazy sister?” When informed that the exchange was on camera he conceded, “Well, tape don’t lie.” The best anecdote was Tyrone "The Bone" Procter telling how when he won a car in a dance contest on American Bandstand he couldn't get it because you had to pay $300 in taxes that he didn't have. So he meekly went to Soul Train’s offices and asked Don for it, sure that the Soul Train conductor would not be happy about Proctor dancing on a rival show, but Don just took out the checkbook without hesitation. I asked Cornelius a question about local Chicago host Clint Ghent and he gave one of his most succinct, clear answers of the night, saying he kept the show in Chicago on the air for Clint; he really thought of him as a protégé who he really wanted to thrive. Though the entire affair was a beautiful, hot mess, it actually ended sublimely. The last question in the audience was from Mark Wood, the vocalist from Lakeside, who went down the line and said a perfect thing to everyone sitting on the panel, thanking Quest for bringing true drumming to the current generation, praising Gooding for his musical gifts, savoring the chance to speak to Watley, whom he had not spoken to since Lakeside and Shalamar were on Solar Records together, to belatedly congratulate her on her solo success, genuflecting to Robinson as the greatest songwriter of his generation, and telling Cornelius how he had done God’s work bringing music to the people, guiding a generation of young folks, and allowing groups like his to still make a living playing music because of the exposure and respect he gave them in the 70s and 80s. Overall it was an amazing night. As I left a confused Cuba Gooding, Sr asked me for help finding the parking lot. I was happy to help him, and the next time I watch this great Soul Train documentary on VH1 I might just switch over to QVC and see what he’s up to.

The Paley Center, and its New York sister museum, usually make these presentations available for viewing, many online, so look for this absurd panel soon.

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