Rejoice and Shout (2010)NYT Critics' Pick
Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images, via Magnolia Pictures
The Power of Voices Lifted in Song
Published: June 2, 2011
¶Theologians and clergy members of every religious stripe may debate the existence of God until the cows come home. But as demonstrated by “Rejoice and Shout,” Don McGlynn’s documentary history of African-American gospel music, reasonable arguments are nothing compared with the power of voices lifted in song to invoke the Holy Spirit. Your religion or lack of one doesn’t matter. At some point while watching the film, you may feel that music is God, or if not, a close approximation of divinity.
More About This Movie
¶This historical survey of the genre draws heavily on the extensive archives of its producer, Joe Lauro, and is grounded in the work of two experts: Anthony Heilbut, who wrote the classic book “The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times,” and Bil Carpenter, whose “Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia” chronicles the lives and careers of more than 650 gospel figures. Their analyses are supplemented by the observations of Jacquie Gales Webb, the host of a popular radio program. Mr. Heilbut’s approach is primarily scholarly and historical, and Mr. Carpenter’s is more sociological and political. Smokey Robinson, who introduces the film and offers its closing observations, sets its praiseworthy tone.
¶The ensemble representing contemporary gospel in the film is the Memphis-based Selvy family, a sprawling multigenerational clan whose members are first interviewed sitting in church pews and near the end burst into musical life in a performance featuring the mighty voice of Darrel Petties.
¶“Rejoice and Shout,” which initially seems rambling and digressive, snaps into focus once it begins relating a chronological history of a genre that evolved out of the fusion of plantation work songs and Christian hymns. Black gospel was first recorded at the beginning of the 20th century. The movie credits the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet, a barbershoplike group formed in a Virginia industrial school, with making the first recording in 1902 for the Victor Talking Machine Company.
¶Tracing gospel’s development from there, the movie offers a straight lineage of innovators and followers that soon spreads out like a river delta with an increasingly complex network of branches and offshoots. In many gospel songs the Jordan River is a code name for the Mississippi, and crossing it means escaping slave territory on one side for freedom on the other.
¶The Fisk Jubilee Singers expanded the vocabulary of gospel to emphasize vocal coloration. In the 1930s Thomas A. Dorsey, the Georgia-born Chicago preacher known as the father of black gospel music, organized the first such music publishing company.
¶We hear the Golden Gate Quartet, a highly polished a cappella jubilee group that had the first of a series of hit records in the mid-’30s, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a preacher and guitarist who combined gospel themes with big-band and blues arrangements. Vintage footage shows James B. Davis, the founder of the Dixie Hummingbirds, swapping vocals with its phenomenal lead singer, Ira Tucker, who died three years ago after 70 years with the group. One of the most stirring clips shows the Swan Silvertones, a musically sophisticated ensemble whose crowning glory was the falsetto of its founder and tenor, Claude Jeter.
¶The incomparable Mahalia Jackson, originally a hairdresser from New Orleans and a protégé of Dorsey’s, is shown in a strong, unvarnished performance from “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Her success illustrates a paradox of gospel: She sold millions of records but was barely acknowledged on the pop and R&B charts. To this day, except for an unpredictable mainstream hit like “Oh Happy Day,” by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, black gospel remains largely under the mass-media radar, a commercial category unto itself.
¶The lineage continues with the elaborately outfitted Clara Ward Singers (a stage mother, Gertrude, and her daughters, Clara and Willa); the competing Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and the Blind Boys of Alabama (featured in a 1982 gospel musical, “The Gospel at Colonus”); and the Staple Singers. Mavis Staples, whose comments are woven throughout the film, recalls how in the early days of the civil rights movement, the family, led by her guitar-playing father, Pops, incorporated freedom songs and some Bob Dylan numbers into their shows.
¶The history concludes with the Rev. James A. Cleveland, the renowned choir leader who helped train Aretha Franklin (who is not seen or heard in the film); the Edwin Hawkins Singers; the Winans; and Andraé Crouch, the seven-time Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter, arranger, producer and pastor, and an architect of contemporary Christian music. A major asset of the film is its refusal to use tiny musical snippets; most of the numbers are fairly complete performances.
¶Like nearly every other musical genre, African-American gospel is a continuing dialogue between roots on one side and technological innovation and secular influences on the other. What accounts for its integrity? It must be the inviolable core of faith at its center.
¶“Rejoice and Shout” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). It has some mild thematic material and incidental smoking.
¶REJOICE AND SHOUT
¶Opens on Friday in Manhattan.
¶Directed by Don McGlynn; edited by Frank Axelson; produced by Joe Lauro; released by Magnolia Pictures. At Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, west of Avenue of the Americas, South Village. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes.