The BET television network is currently airing a ten-episode drama on the history of Don Cornelius and his greatest creation, the TV show Soul Train. This program, American Soul, will take viewers on a journey through Cornelius’ involvement with the show and all the storylines inherent thereto.
When I saw advertisements for this show, I was immediately hooked. I want to see this.
The first three episodes were listed as being available “on demand” from my cable provider.
I cleared some time and started watching the first episode.
We start off with Don Cornelius and his opportunity to take what was a Chicago-only TV show, Soul Train, into national syndication. This is in 1971.
A few moments later, we have a scene where a high school theater troupe is performing “You’re The One That I Want.”
From the movie Grease.
Which was released in 1978.
But the scene was set in 1971.
I’ve seen this before. The time-hopping, putting music that hadn’t been written yet into a period drama. And I know who the culprit is.
About 15 years ago, NBC aired American Dreams, a serialized drama that focused on the lives of an Irish Catholic family in early 1960’s Philadelphia. On the show, one of the subplots is that the eldest daughter is a dancer on American Bandstand, which got its start in Philadelphia. The show went through three seasons of poor writing, stunt casting, and a musical timeline that was, to put it mildly, haphazard.
The producer of that show? A former child actor named Jonathan Prince.
And as the credits for this new show American Soul rolled…
One of the executive producers was Jonathan Prince.
Crap. Here we go again.
One of the things I hated about American Dreams was its stunt casting, as the show would use contemporary artists to mimic vintage American Bandstand performances. And their interpretations ranged from mildly acceptable (Usher as Jackie Wilson) to downright putrid (Jennifer Love Hewitt has no business pretending to be Nancy Sinatra).
Now, American Soul wouldn’t try to do that … would they?
Oh. Guess they did.
And within two episodes, we have some really shady writing about a pivotal moment in music history.
If I watched the episode correctly, Gladys Knight (played by Kelly Rowland) wants to share with Don Cornelius a new song her favorite writer gave her – a song that was originally called “Midnight Plane to Houston,” which she decided to change a few words on her own. And then she performs “Midnight Train to Georgia.” By herself. On a piano. In 1971. For a song that was written in 1973.
Not taking anything away from Ms. Rowland, whose performance as Gladys Knight is spot-on – the whole idea of Knight re-writing Jim Weatherly’s song to be about a train to Georgia is suspect – considering that Weatherly released the song first, and it was a decent sized country music hit…
And was later changed to “Midnight Train to Georgia” – by Cissy Houston. Don’t believe me? That’s what YouTube clips are for.
Oh, and it gets better – there’s a character on American Soul who plays a very protective record company executive from Gladys Knight’s record label. Which … in 1971 … was Motown Records. But Gladys Knight and the Pips recorded “Midnight Train to Georgia” for a different company, Buddah Records, in 1973. So … is the protected record company executive still involved with Knight’s career on American Soul, or will Don Cornelius have to deal with the record company executive the next time the Commodores or the Temptations appear on Soul Train? Inquiring minds want to know …
In other words … if the music history doesn’t match up with the plotline, then the music history must be changed to match the plotline.
Oh, and Kelly Rowland should know better, considering she appeared on American Dreams as a re-interpretation of Martha Reeves. Complete with her own Vandellas.
Listen, I really, really want to enjoy American Soul. I do. But, for me, when the writers take these kinds of liberties and deus ex machina moments and raison a clef moments and other fancy-schmancy high-faluttin’ terminology moments… it immediately snaps you out of the “suspension of disbelief,” that you’re actually watching a drama set in a New York City Special Victims Unit – until it becomes a show about actors portraying a drama set in a New York City Special Victims Unit.
When the writers get the history right – at least mostly right – you get quality dramas like Mad Men and Homefront and Tour of Duty and The Deuce. When the writers simply use historic mnemonics to create the illusion of historic drama, then you get dreck like The Playboy Club and Pan Am and American Dreams and … well …
The thing is, there are good parts about American Soul, and it comes from the drama outside of the TV series – where it becomes more about life in a segregated 1970’s Los Angeles, at a time where you can see the racism and distrust and anger boiling and seething. That’s the story I want to see from American Soul. I want a drama like this that doesn’t portray Los Angeles as the home of Fred Sanford and Raj and Dwayne and Rerun.
Maybe as the show progresses, we’ll get more of that story.
But for now … sigh … we’ll just have to see what happens next.
And I can’t wait for the episode where they cast someone as Elton John – yes, Elton John played on Soul Train at one point in time.
Just do me a big favor, American Soul. Make things right. I get it. It’s a drama. It’s fiction. Some historic information has been moved around for dramatic purposes. It’s not a documentary.
But if you could … if it’s not too much trouble … could you at least PLEASE try to get the music right if you’re going to incorporate the Soul Train history into your drama?
Pretty please? With Ultra Sheen, Afro Sheen, and Afro Sheen cosmetics on top?