When I first heard about a forthcoming music documentary entitled Mr. Soul, I naturally assumed it would offer a deep cinematic dive into the creation of one of Buffalo Springfield’s greatest songs, ‘Mr. Soul‘. Penned by Neil Young – the Springfield’s John to Stephen Stills’ Ringo — this fuzzy garage punk classic is a unique outlier in the group’s songbook, and a worthy subject of musicological study.
As usual, I was wrong. This Mr. Soul was Ellis Haizlip, a New York City-based dance producer and stage manager who hosted a public television series entitled, simply, ‘Soul!’ between 1968 and 1973. The erudite Haizlip only got the job because the initial hires didn’t pan out, and despite his lack of interview experience and quiet demeanor, he quickly became an African American icon over the course of the series’ five-year run.
I wasn’t familiar with Soul! prior to watching this documentary (now streaming at Pacific Film Archive and the Virtual Roxie), but it’s not the sort of program new immigrants to the United States would have been aware of in the early 1970s. For better or worse (and in common with the rest of white America) we got our first television exposure to African American culture via ‘The Flip Wilson Show’, ‘Sanford and Son’, and ‘Good Times’.
Unlike those programs, ‘Soul!’ wasn’t intended to be a variety hour or situation comedy. Haizlip wanted to provide a broader overview of Black culture, and he wanted to produce it for Black Americans, not the mass market. Based on the evidence in Mr. Soul, he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
A bit of a fabulist who claimed to have given Duke Ellington and The Beatles song ideas and indulged in affairs with Princess Margaret, the Dalai Lama and Lyndon Johnson (could any of us resist?), Haizlip’s standing as a renaissance man was reflected throughout ‘Soul!”s programming. Ellis brought it all to the small screen: politics, dance, poetry, theater, music and even Minister Louis Farrakhan, whose mealy-mouthed prevarications about homosexuality are among the film’s most memorable segments.
Produced, written, and directed by Melissa Haizlip- Ellis’s niece — Mr. Soul is crammed full of far too many highlights to mention in one column. Every viewer’s mileage will vary, but mine include Wilson Pickett’s roof-raising performance of ‘Oh Happy Day!’ with gospel singer Marion Williams, Rahsaan Roland Kirk simultaneously blowing three wind instruments and then smashing a chair to pieces, and the astonishingly fluid dancing of Carmen De Lavallade.
I finished Mr. Soul! and immediately searched the internet to see if the series was available on DVD or Blu-ray, but alas it is not. The good news, however, is that you can stream nine episodes if you’re a member of New York City’s public television station, WNET Channel 13. Their monthly fee is only $5, which is a pretty good deal if you’re as enamored by ‘Soul!’ as I am.
As for Buffalo Springfield, ‘Mr. Soul’ remains a firm favorite (running a close second to ‘For What it’s Worth’ and just a nose ahead of ‘Expecting to Fly’), and hopefully they’ll get their own rockumentary one day. In the meantime, though, I’ll happily log onto Channel 13 and relive Earth, Wind, and Fire’s stunning television debut — as seen on ‘Soul’, Jan.10, 1973.