Film Review: Movie on black gospel lets music speak for itself

The Staple Singers

Photo by Valentine

The Staple Singers

At the start of "Rejoice and Shout," a respectful chronological and historical survey of black gospel music, singer Andrae Crouch theorizes that when God chooses to deliver His divine message through the voices of men and women, He may be acting as much for our protection as for our enlightenment.

"If we really heard God's voice, we'd be reduced to juice, probably," Crouch comments.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Rating: PG

Length: 105 minutes

Released: June 3, 2011 NY

Director: Don McGlynn

More info and showtimes »

Viewers of "Rejoice and Shout" may feel liquefied nonetheless, due to the thrilling impact of the ecstatic testifying, dynamic vocals and powerful stage presence of such God-praising gospel greats as Mahalia Jackson, Brother Joe May, guitar-strumming Sister Rosetta Tharpe, falsetto masters the Swan Silvertones, the sequined Clara Ward Singers and others, seen mostly in archival footage that dates as far back as 1922, when the Utica Quartet appeared in an early sound film.

Memphis is cited as the place where gospel music really got its start, thanks to the Pentecostal movement popularized by Bishop Charles H. Mason and the Church of God in Christ. ("WEIRD BABEL OF TONGUES/ New Sect of Fanatics Is Breaking Loose," reported a Los Angeles newspaper about the "Holy Ghost" phenomenon.) The film ends with footage from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "Mountaintop" speech, delivered in Memphis on April 3, 1968, and features clips and interviews with such contemporary Memphis and Mid-South artists as the Selvy Family and Darrel Petties.

Mavis Staples of the Staple Singers -- the group that found its greatest commercial success recording for Memphis' Stax label -- is one of the film's recurring talking heads, along with Motown legend Smokey Robinson and several gospel scholars.

Inevitably, the movie functions as not just a musical survey but a history of black America, from slavery to tragically compromised freedom to the "Northern migration" to the civil rights movement and beyond. "Church to me means excitement, it means celebration," says gospel disc jockey Jacquie Gayles Webb, suggesting why Southern African-Americans who moved North were resistant to the more staid, Europeanized church services they encountered.

The evolution of 20th century entertainment technology also is part of the story. Key moments include the 1902 release of "Gabriel's Trumpet" by the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet, the first commercially released gospel record, on the Victor label; and the 1930s CBS radio appearances that turned the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet into national stars, earning the group a 1941 invitation to be the first gospel performers to sing at the White House.

Director Don McGlynn -- who also has made films about Howlin' Wolf, Spike Jones and the Mills Brothers -- wisely allows many of the vintage performances to play out in their entirety. (Much of the footage is taken from the collection of producer Joe Lauro, founder of the Historic Film Archives.) This is a welcome contrast to the impatient snippets of sound and image found in most music documentaries. Unfortunately, McGlynn finds no filmmaking equivalent to the ecstasy of the music itself; the conventional structure of this cinematic essay is very much in the traditional PBS mode, suggesting that when "Rejoice and Shout" finishes its theatrical run, it will be a staple of public television pledge drives for years to come.

The movie opens Friday at the Majestic and the Ridgeway Four.

-- John Beifuss, 529-2394

© 2011 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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