The Best of Soul Train
starring Don Cornelius
When groups of scientists huddle together in the future to determine exactly when America hit the high point of popular culture, one lone researcher, frustrated by the endless arguing and discussion will wordlessly throw down a single box, the Best of Soul Train DVD set, the debate will be over, and the ’70s will win.
Soul Train has been called many things, the longest-running syndicated TV show, the Black American Bandstand, but after viewing this set, you’ll probably just call it awesome. Although Soul Train lasted from 1971 until 2006, this Time Life 3-disc compilation focuses on the early years, with mostly excellent results.
For whatever reason, the shows are edited to about half their running time. This results in one of the most noticeable missteps — each disc only gets one line dance segment. The Soul Train Line was amazing — the dancers would form two lines with a space for two dancers to dance all the way down the stage. Not only were the dances themselves incredible, sometimes using props like toothbrushes or spun capes, but the glimpse into ’70s African-American fashion is astounding as well. Many modern viewers will find themselves lamenting the fact that they own no velvet or patchwork denim jumpsuits in their wardrobe. Surely these segments could have been included as an extra on the discs?
Soul Train featured just about every prominent African-American musician, and the picks here hit many of the high spots, with the baffling exclusion of some incendiary early ’70s Al Green performances. While the majority of the performances are lip synched, some better than others (Marvin Gaye admits he was an especially poor lip syncher), some are live, like the Isley Brothers, James Brown and Sly, and the Family Stone. Everyone will have their own highlights, but for this reviewer, the Barry White and James Brown segments alone are worth the price of the set. Of course, there are so many gems here that it is almost impossible to pick a favorite. Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson in an impromptu debut, Stevie Wonder joking with host Don Cornelius, a Jackson 5 appearance where Jermaine is the star, Curtis Mayfield singing songs from Superfly — these discs are packed with a wealth of amazing performances.
Perhaps even more interesting than the performances are the question and answer segments preceding them. This is a chance for the studio audience to ask the musicians whatever they want. Since this is the ’70s, this tends to be a lot of questions about astrology. (You know you’re in the ’70s when James Brown tells the crowd he’s a Taurus and the crowd replies “Right on!”) It’s nice to see the kids eager but still shy asking their idols questions ranging from the usual “When are you going to play in my area?” to the more hard-hitting, like the kid asking James Brown why he supported Nixon.
Even with the few flaws (there was a segment with George Foreman that was cut?) with the set, The Best of Soul Train is a fascinating time capsule, one that will monopolize your television. I don’t know how many times I thought, “Well, I’ll just watch one more segment,” only to go through another whole disc. If you have any interest in R&B, soul, or just general awesomeness, you owe it to yourself to get this. Future generations will thank you.
Soul Train: www.soultrain.com