Show Me Your Soul: The Soul Train Years is a 2013 documentary produced for French television by filmmaker Pascal Forneri (who also directed the critically-acclaimed 2010 documentary Gainsbourg & his Girls). It uses wonderful rare footage, archival photographs, and brand new interviews to take the very first in-depth look at the history of Soul Train. Forneri not only highlights the amazing soul and R&B artists who performed on the program over its 35 year, 1,100 episode run, but also the real stars of the show: the in-studio dancers who would set the standard for future generations of contemporary urban dance.
Several recurring Soul Train dancers are spotlighted in this documentary who provide a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how the show came together. Most of the dancers were not professionally trained, they would spend hundreds of dollars out of their own pockets to fly themselves out to Hollywood from cities all over the U.S. to be on the show. Those determined few who didn’t make the cut at the audition would sneak themselves onto the studio lot by any means necessary: including one dancer who got onto the set by hiding himself in the trunk of a car. As the show’s popularity in American households increased, so did the dancer’s popularity: week after week they’d try to outdo one another. First by their dance moves which became more and more wild, then by their fashion choices. Some dancers were so eager to get in front of the camera that they started bringing in props (a man known as “Mr. X” became famous for his dance routine that included a large, oversized toothbrush). Dancers began getting recognized on the streets of their home cities as if they were veritable celebrities.
Visionary host Don Cornelius always stated that Soul Train was a home for soul artists regardless of their race, and featured a long list of white artists who appealed to black audiences: Gino Vannelli, David Bowie, Beastie Boys, Elton John, Teena Marie, Hall & Oates, Pet Shop Boys, and Spandau Ballet were amongst the many white artists who appeared on the program over the years. As music trends slowly began to change, Don Cornelius struggled to keep Soul Train true to his original vision. When disco went mainstream, Cornelius made sure the show focused on only the most soulful disco artists that were being played on the radio. When rap music went commercial, however, Cornelius could not hide his contempt for the genre and made it very clear from the beginning that he wouldn’t get behind hip hop. Forneri documents this well, showing footage of Cornelius hanging his head in disgust following a performance by Public Enemy. As he slowly approaches Chuck D. and Flavor Fav for an interview he begins with a very long pause, and then exclaims, “That was frightening.” In the middle of a Kurtis Blow interview, Cornelius awkwardly admits on television “It’s so much fun, I mean, it doesn’t make sense to old guys like me. I don’t understand why they love it so much but that ain’t my job is it? My job is to deal with it and we’re dealing with it,” which was followed by uncomfortable laughter from the studio audience.
Show Me Your Soul: The Soul Train Years is currently up on YouTube in its entirety. If you don’t understand French then you’ll just have to enjoy the amazing footage. Peace, love, and soul!