“Mr. Soul!” (USA)
Directed by Melissa Haizlip & Samuel D. Pollard
From 1968 to 1973, there was a television show on PBS those of you even a couple of years younger than my fifty-four revolutions around the sun will never have known existed. It was on PBS and it was called “Soul!”
Of course, it’s more likely you’ve never heard of it because you are white. The series was the brainchild and week-to-week creation of Ellis Haizlip, a Broadway producer who was tired of the lack of color being beamed out over the airwaves. It featured interviews with prominent political, literary, and musically relevant members of African American culture, as well as performances by poets, musicians, and dancers. And it was fantastic. I remember watching it. I don’t claim to know exactly what I was ingesting at age eight or nine, but the performances were always fascinating to my artistically active brain.
“So, the show was great. Thanks, Jason. How’s the movie?!”
So glad you asked. The movie is quite simply fantastic – filled with energy, reminiscent of another decade (that sadly mirrors this one in all the wrong ways), and not even a LITTLE bit boring. I could have easily watched another hour or two as it followed the life of both the man and the show. The film’s pacing is focused and tight, which given its creation by the subject’s niece, is kind of shocking. Docs made by a subject’s loved ones tend to lean toward “This Is Your Life” tribute rather than actual documentation. But in this instance, the loving descriptions of this titan of black culture seem almost journalistic…objective even.
About those talking heads…everything they say is directly related to where we are in the story. That may seem like a given, but if I had a dollar for every doc that put in a comment from a talking head simply because it was a) funny, b) by somebody famous, or c) was needlessly repetitive, I’d have enough money for several dozen movie tickets. Further the people interviewed in “Mr. Soul” were all either on the show, worked for the show or are related to the man. Like “It’s A Wonderful Day In the Neighborhood,” the effect is a profound sense of intimacy and inclusion.
I remember early on in the film there was a quick segment that seemed to just sort of stop, and, without explanation, blend in to the next part of the overall story. This happened a couple of times, and I thought, what is this? Then those segments, like a three-act aside, came in to crystal clear focus with a wallop of a payoff. This stop/start causes just enough confusion to, in my mind, hinder the beautiful wave of the rest of the doc. I might suggest that in their final cut they find a way to separate those segments in a more specific way…perhaps a simple fade to black before and after…or a specific musical theme that connects those pieces. I don’t know. I’m not a filmmaker…but it’s the ONLY remotely negative thing I have to say about the film, so…something to think about.
But let’s get to the REALLY good stuff! The performances! I could give you a list of all the performers, but then this review becomes not only an infomercial, but it will rob you of the joy of thinking “HEY! It’s (fill in the blank with famous R&B singer or group, jazz giant, brilliant poet, dancer, etc.)!” Just know that these bits alone will make you long to find every possible surviving episode of the show to watch again and again.
The final effect this film leaves you with depends, to a large extent, on whether or not you are a person of color. If you are, it will act as a massive touchstone to a time when the cause and immediate cultural effect of the civil rights movement meant that the brilliance of African-American artistry, anger, and community were available via the tube to a black audience, week after week. It will fill you with pride, passion and more than a little anger that not a single show with a similar format has followed it in the forty-five years hence. If you are NOT a person of color, then, like me, you’ll probably feel more than a little shame that we have taken our privileged television entertainment for granted, and always have. You’ll wonder, “how did I never hear of this show”? And, hopefully, you’ll want to know what you can do to be an ally in a cause that is moving backwards at an alarmingly high rate.
In other words, like all the best docs, it’ll move you to, if not action, then, at the very least, introspection and change. When it is released, do not miss this amazingly energizing film.
Written on 10/25/2018