Singing the praises of gospel: ‘Rejoice and Shout’ explores history, music

Jul 09, 2011

Rejoice and Shout

Singing the praises of gospel: ‘Rejoice and Shout’ explores history, music

‘Rejoice and Shout’’ makes its case before we even hear the music it explores. We’re told that no matter your race or your religion (or lack thereof) gospel is a transcendent experience.

“If we really heard God’s voice, we would be reduced to juice, probably,’’ says Andraé Crouch, a musician and pastor. “We couldn’t take it. So he has to use other people to speak his word because we wouldn’t be able to stand it.’’

True enough, you’d be hard pressed to watch this broad documentary without getting wrapped up in its spirit, holy or otherwise. The Regent Theatre, in Arlington, is hosting the film’s Boston-area premiere tomorrow through July 16.

It’s a tall order, chronicling the history of a music that has meant so much to so many. Maybe that’s why the two-hour film narrows its focus to gospel’s roots in and importance to the African-American community. A few commentators speak in vague terms about how white church music was too European and staid to speak to black Americans.

“Rejoice and Shout’’ follows a loose chronology, putting gospel in it historical context with archival footage of social unrest and some of the genre’s most gripping performers.

The greats - Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson, Thomas A. Dorsey - are all examined, but it’s the lesser-known figures who will electrify casual gospel fans. The eyes fixate on pew-rattling singers such as Jackie Verdell and Brother Joe May. The falsetto of the Swan Silvertones’ Claude Jeter is one of the genre’s true masterpieces. The heavenly, close harmonies of the Norfolk Jubilee Quartet could make a believer out of anyone.

We hear from academic authorities on the subject (historians Bill Carpenter and Anthony Heilbut), the genre’s pioneers (Marie Knight, Ira Tucker, Mavis Staples), and pop artists with roots in the music (Smokey Robinson).

Grainy black-and-white video footage of baptisms in a river play in the background, reminding us that gospel, in its purest form, was never just entertainment. It was the soundtrack to salvation through its origins in plantation songs during the days of slavery through the Civil Rights era.

No group understood the music’s vast scope and ability to empower better than the Staple Singers, who figure prominently in the film.

“We sang for years not knowing that we were singing gospel songs and our father was playing the blues on his guitar,’’ says Staples, whose running commentary puts artists and movements into perspective. “It was a good marriage for us.’’

Jackson is credited as the genre’s first star to appeal to mainstream and middle-class audiences, from her performances at Carnegie Hall to an appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.’’ She was the rare artist who was both popular and revered by her peers. (Not just for her singing prowess, either. “She could do your hair, and it would last for three weeks. That’s how good she did it,’’ notes Willa Ward.)

The documentary works its way up to more contemporary gospel artists, including Yolanda Adams and rapper Kirk Franklin. And it presents the music as a living, breathing art form that’s still evolving. Through the Selvy Family, we see how it has been passed down through the generations, including a knee-high little girl who deserves a hair-raising a cappella rendition of “Amazing Grace.’’

“Rejoice and Shout’’ stumbles, though, when its filmmakers overreach. It’s a powerful and thoughtful connection to make, but when we see President Barack Obama delivering his triumphant speech on election night, the moment feels hastily added as a way to bring the subject full circle.

By zooming so far out, “Rejoice and Shout’’ often feels diluted to the point that we don’t get a deep understanding of anyone in particular. As such, it’s not nearly as potent or enlightening as “Say Amen, Somebody,’’ the 1982 documentary that followed a select group of gospel acts.

The reality is that a definitive history of gospel deserves a 10-part series. Instead, “Rejoice and Shout’’ is merely a window into a world most of us would like to visit - either as a spectator or a participant. Amen indeed.