By Linc Leifeste | June 23, 2011
Director: Don McGlynn
Featuring: Smokey Robinson, Andrae Crouch, Mavis Staples, Willa Ward, Ira Tucker, Ira Tucker Jr.
Clearly a labor of love for director Don McGlynn, Rejoice and Shout fails to dig too deep in its attempt to tell the story of gospel music’s 200-year history. Relying heavily on vintage performance clips (and what glorious clips they are!), the films takes mostly a chronological approach to the music while allowing a small handful of performers (Mavis Staples, Smokey Robinson, Andrae Crouch, etc.) and gospel experts (Anthony Heilbut, Bill Carpenter and Jacquie Gales Webb) to provide context and personal reminisces. Covering such a long and dynamic history in two hours obviously doesn’t allow for much depth but the film left me feeling that there were a lot of fascinating topics left uncovered or barely touched upon. Of course, maybe it’s a good sign for a documentary covering such a broad topic that it left me wanting more.
In its opening minutes the film makes clear that it’s not focused on a respect for gospel music solely as a genre seperate of it’s religious roots, with multiple interview subjects talking about the power of God and the vital role that faith has played in their respective lives. While the irreligious may be put off by this opening focus on spirituality, the film soon settles into a more historical approach to its subject.
While loosely assembled, Rejoice and Shout basically covers gospel music from it’s beginnings until they modern-day. You get basic information on all of the major players: Thomas A. Dorsey (who had a knack for writing and performing both the profane and the sacred), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (who was a fireball on the guitar!), Mahalia Jackson, The Dixie Hummingbirds, The Soul Stirrers (who at one time featured Sam Cooke on lead vocals), The Staple Singers (whose blend of folk and gospel made them key players during the civil-rights movement), Andrae Crouch, etc. but no real depth. For example, Dorsey’s “double life” offers a great chance to dig into the role monetary gain plays in gospel music as well as the relationship between blues and gospel (not to mention between sin and salvation).
There are enough fascinating and relatively obscure historical tidbits thrown in to keep things interesting. Examples include playing the first known recorded gospel song by the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet from 1902 and pointing out that The Golden Gate Quartet was the first gospel group to perform at the White House when they participated in the inauguration ceremonies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Ultimately it’s the vintage performance clips, which thankfully make up the bulk of the film, that give Rejoice and Shout it’s power. I can’t imagine anyone except possibly the most curmudgeonly grouch not being moved by the performances of the Dixie Hummingbirds (with the two lead singers’ traded riffs being both visually and audibly inspiring) and the Swan Silvertones (with lead singer Claude Jeter’s spine-tingling falsetto) captured at the Newport Jazz Festival. Other performance highlights include Rosetta Tharpe and her impassioned guitar playing as well as Brother Joe May and Jackie Verdell tearing through “You Gonna Need Him”. Likewise, the vintage newsreel clips of legendary preachers such as Sweet Daddy Grace and Elder Solomon Lightfoot Michaux with shots of their congregation in the midst of ecstatic worship alone are worth the price of admission.
McGwynn is wise to allow the vintage clips to play at length and speak for themselves as they end up being a much stronger testament to the joys and power of gospel music than anything that is said by the various performers and historians that are interviewed. The allure of gospel music is something that can be understood better through experience than exposition. And while non-believers might not come away from these vintage clips feeling like they’ve seen the light, I bet a few just might feel the Spirit move somewhere deep down inside.
Rating: 6 of 10