Jul 10, 2011
An uplifting documentary chronicling the more than century-long history of gospel music, doc veteran Don McGlynn’s “Rejoice and Shout” won’t win awards for the originality of its delivery, which amounts to: interview snippet, musical snippet, interview snippet, musical snippet . . . wash, rinse, repeat.
However, most documentaries don’t have access to stellar archival performance from the likes of Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Norfolk Jubilee Quartet, the Utica Quartet, the Dixie Humdingers, the Clara Ward Singers, Brother Joe May, Shirley Caesar, the Caravans, the Soul Stirrers, the Swan Silvertones, Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, Blind Boys of Alabama and the Staple Singers. Phew!
They also don’t have such talking heads as Smokey Robinson, Mavis Staples, the late Ira Tucker or Ira Tucker Jr., nor performance spaces like Pennsylvania’s Metropolitan Opera House, the location where the Tuckers reminisce about their personal ties to the majestic theater.
The elder Tucker (interviewed before his death in 2008; the film is dedicated to him) recalls performing in the massive hall back in 1946, while his son remembers “there would be people who got out of their seats and walked up these steps to shake the hand of a singer — and it was OK!”
Adding greatly to the historical context are insightful testimonies by Bil Carpenter, the young author of “Uncloudy Days: A Gospel Encyclopedia,” and Anthony Heilbut, the distinguished author of “The Gospel Sound.” Both are appealing camera presences.
But really, it’s the music that makes this movie sing.
From selections from the Fisk Jubilee Singers dating back to 1909, to a recording of “Gabriel’s Trumpet” by the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet — the first known gospel record, which preceded everything else by at least two decades, according to Carpenter — the spiritual sounds began in the churches of the South, where African-Americans worked blue-collar jobs all week, as maids and butlers. But Sunday was their day to dress their best and shine.
Thomas A. Dorsey brought the sound to the North, when families began migrating in hopes of finding better lives. Instead, they encountered racism — not only from whites but, distressingly, from upper-class blacks.
Still, the music never wavered, and gospel eventually prevailed. Hallelujah!
(“Rejoice and Shout” contains mild thematic material and incidental smoking; neither should stop you from rejoicing, or shouting.)
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