At first the idea of devoting 90 minutes to the cultural significance of “Soul Train” seems like an overreach, until the producers begin peeling back the layers of VH1’s latest rock doc. The program’s success and evolution overlap with interesting chapters in both U.S. and music-industry history, reverberating through not just music but dance and fashion as well. As such, “Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America” is a slick sojourn through the show’s staggering 36-year run, albeit a bit oversold by its title.
Launched by Don Cornelius as a local Chicago program in 1970 — reflecting his desire to advance another image of American-Americans on television — “Soul Train” went national within a year. The syndicated version moved to Hollywood and began to attract bigger-name acts, as well as influencing pop culture with its hairstyles, outfits and dance line.
The footnotes, however, are really the best part of the story, such as Cornelius’ decision to eventually feature white artists — who recognized the show’s selling potential — or his discomfort with incorporating rap music.
Cornelius and many others participate in the interviews (did you remember that Rosie Perez was a “Soul Train” dancer?), but the format mostly provides a once-over-lightly glimpse of the program’s influence. Indeed, the interview with Cornelius is described in the press notes as “rare,” which makes his lack of memorable insights even more conspicuous.
The one story that deserves considerably more time, meanwhile, involves Dick Clark’s attempt to clone the concept with his own knockoff version titled “Soul Unlimited.” The rival was quickly yanked after Cornelius fought back, with Jesse Jackson, among others, in his corner. (The sequence brings to mind the white artists covering black hits in “Dreamgirls.”)
Frankly, a little more material like that would have gone a long way. As is, “Soul Train” chugs along smoothly enough, but for the most part salutes a show whose longevity emerges as the most salient part of its legacy.