‘Mr. Soul!’ Review: Televising the Revolution, With Great Songs

‘Mr. Soul!’ Review: Televising the Revolution, With Great Songs

In one of the many remarkable archival clips in the documentary “Mr. Soul!,” a 20-something Al Green croons “Love and Happiness” on live TV. Seen in front of him in long shot are the bobbing heads of an enraptured audience. They form — as the writer Greg Tate describes in an interview — a “sea of big, bold Afros.”

This moment captures the spirit of “Soul!,” a boundary-pushing variety show that aired on PBS from 1968 to 1973 with the aim of sharing the diversity of Black culture, as it emerged during the Civil Rights struggle and the Black Arts Movement, with the Black public.

Created and hosted by the theater producer Ellis Haizlip, and produced by a Black women–led crew, “Soul!” mixed high and low culture with an avant-garde eclecticism. Artists as varied as Earth, Wind & Fire, the Last Poets and Toni Morrison made their TV debuts on the show; Nikki Giovanni read poetry set to gospel music; and Haizlip graciously yet incisively interviewed a number of political figures, including Louis Farrakhan, whom the openly gay host questioned about homophobia in the Nation of Islam. Though a resounding success, especially among African-American viewers, the show faced — and ultimately buckled under — pressures from the Nixon White House.

Directed by Melissa Haizlip (Ellis’s niece), “Mr. Soul!” resurrects the magic of “Soul!,” partly through dense audiovisual collage. Warm, fuzzy archival excerpts are layered with interviews and quotes, and set to infectiously groovy music. Broad in scope and rapidly paced, the film can feel as if it’s bursting at the seams. But it acutely conveys the radical joy that “Soul!” inspired, barely contained in the movie’s running time.

Mr. Soul!
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes. Watch through virtual cinemas.

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