"Soul Train" creator and host Don Cornelius hardly ever set foot in front of a movie camera, yet he helped shape a whole era of filmmaking by popularizing the sounds and styles of black America in the early 1970s. Cornelius, who died this morning at age 75, was a key tastemaker of the blaxploitation era, bringing its sophisticated and streetwise R&B music and its flamboyant polyester fashions into America's living rooms every week. He even appeared as himself (doing emcee duty at a nightclub) in one classic blaxploitation movie, 1973's "Cleopatra Jones."

Of course, when most men wore shiny three-piece suits in those movies, they were playing pimps and drug dealers, while Cornelius, wearing the same outfits on "Soul Train," presented himself as a legitimate (if no less intimidating) and successful entrepreneur. His smooth delivery and rumbling baritone, made him an icon of cool with a hint of menace. Cornellius owned a charisma that might have served him well on the big screen, and did on the rare occasion that he popped up in movies.

In "Tapeheads," an underrated 1988 comedy in which John Cusack and Tim Robbins play two music video directors trying to make it big, Cornelius plays Mo Fuzz, an imposing record label chief. Drawing on his (at the time) two decades plus of music industry experience, Cornelius is effortlessly authoritative as he explains to newbies Cusack and Robbins the ways of the world. When he drops his catchphrase, "Let's get into trouble, baby," it's both an invitation and a warning.

Don Cornelius in "Tapeheads"

A decade later, in the mob spoof "Jane Austen's Mafia!", he would play himself, but as part of a sight gag involving a mobster funeral gathering of unlikely Dons. He utters his famed "Soul Train" sign-off -- "Love, peace, and soul," as a solemn benediction, and is all the funnier for it.

Don Cornelius in "Jane Austen's Mafia!" (Warning: Clip Contains Extensive Projectile Vomiting)

By the time of that cameo, it had been five years since Cornelius had stepped down as the host of "Soul Train." His place, as a beloved institution was secure. So was that of "Soul Train," so much so that, in 2000's "Charlie's Angels," when blond Cameron Diaz gets to live out her fantasy of shaking her booty on TV during a "Soul Train" taping, the whole sequence is presented without irony or in-joke winking. Even though it stops the plot and the action heroics cold for several minutes, the "Soul Train" sequence justifies its inclusion as a few minutes of pure, carefree joy.

Also pure, carefree nostalgia. After all, in 2000, "Soul Train" was seen as a relic of a more fun, less self-conscious era in pop culture. In 2006, it went off the air after 35 years of syndication (and after 13 years of non-Cornelius hosts). A couple years later, Cornelius sold the franchise he'd built but stayed on as a consultant, in the hopes of reviving the show. He did help put together an epic "The Best Of 'Soul Train'" DVD set that included classic music performances not seen in 30 years, but "Soul Train" never did go back on the air.

In the last three years, Cornelius made several attempts to resurrect "Soul Train" as a movie, first as an action comedy set in the 1980s that would use the show and its dancers as a backdrop, and later as a more historical behind-the-scenes look at the making of the show in the '70s, perhaps with celebrated James Brown fan Eddie Murphy's involvement. None of that ever came to fruition, which is too bad. Properly done, a "Soul Train" film might have made moviegoers recognize how much Cornelius had influenced film as well as music and TV. At the very least, it would have been the hippest trip on a 35MM strip.
categories Movies