Hitting the right notes in gospel
By David Malitz
Friday, June 17, 2011
It’s hard to imagine a single person — no matter what race, religion, age or background — not being mesmerized and moved while watching vintage performances of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Swan Silvertones or the Staples Singers in the new gospel music documentary “Rejoice and Shout.”
The genre’s history dates back to 19th-century plantation fields, and its importance in African American churches and culture is a topic that can only begin to be touched on in a two-hour documentary. And that’s all director Don McGlynn does.
Mostly McGlynn’s content offers a bit of context and then simply lets viewers enjoy the classic footage, which more than speaks for itself. It’s not a bad strategy, even if it means that “Rejoice and Shout” ends up being far from authoritative and misses some key opportunities to dig deep into intriguing characters and issues. The documentary plays out as little more than a Wikipedia page with musical accompaniment. But, oh, that musical accompaniment. . .
McGlynn takes a chronological approach to his subject and lets a handful of experts and musicians (Mavis Staples and Smokey Robinson, among them) provide some context and walk us through a century of music. We learn little nuggets, such as how the call-and-response formula that is so prevalent in gospel grew from plantation music, and that churchgoers cherished wearing suits on Sundays after a week of blue-collar outfits. But the film moves quickly, and information is offered mostly in bullet points.
The music is almost universally superlative. The unadorned vocal power of the likes of early stars such as Shirley Caesar and Mahalia Jackson is breathtaking, and the low-fidelity recordings only serve to enhance the bare-bones might of the performances. Jackson, the New Orleans native and “Queen of Gospel,” is one of many subjects worthy of lengthy exploration, but McGlynn keeps to the formula of a few minutes of background, a performance and then on to the next segment.
Another character, Thomas A. Dorsey, led a “double life” as writer of both raunchy bar room blues and legendary hymnals such as “Peace in the Valley.” His story offers another chance to delve deep into the relationship between blues and gospel or the business of making money from praise music, but both topics are merely touched on.
When those unanswered questions (unasked, even) are quickly followed by footage of the Swan Silvertones frontman Claude Jeter’s inimitable falsetto or the incomparable Sister Rosetta Tharpe, it’s hard to complain. (“I didn’t know ladies played guitar!” Mavis Staples exclaims about her first exposure to Tharpe in one of the film’s funniest moments.) Early ’60s footage of the Staple Singers is thrilling enough to make you want not just want to download the group’s albums, but to seek out the original, scratchy 45s.
And that’s how “Rejoice and Shout” leaves viewers — wanting to dig deeper.
Contains some mild thematic material and incidental smoking.