Rejoice and Shout offers the most magnificent, heroic examples of art to be found in any movie so far this year. This documentary history of gospel music begins with an aged Smokey Robinson contextualizing the form as the root of American pop music. Smokey’s reflection—"God is life"—purposely combines creative and spiritual inspiration. He introduces a cavalcade of performances by many of the gospel genre’s great figures that confirms how creativity and spirituality resulted in art that is both innovative and courageous.
Each astonishing clip redefines gospel as a triumph over social and personal adversity—from a young Shirley Caesar churning rhythm with The Caravans to the closing, ecstatic footage of a middleaged, beaming Sister Rosetta Tharp. It’s evidence that art is always an expression of personal struggle—plus skill and talent. Informative commentary by scholars Bill Carpenter, Anthony Heilbut and Jacquie Gales Webb is rounded out with reflections from Mavis Staples. Her middle-aged countenance, like Smokey’s, provides evidence that gospel (black roots music) contains more than pop newness, but it is primarily a culture of experience—starting with the important evocation of the subjugated African slave. Its substance is formed by the weight of existence, the fortitude of faith and the levity of joy. As Webb observes: "Even though [slaves] were pushed into the European way of God, they brought with them their own spirit."
More than a task of research and collection, Rejoice and Shout presents a visual record of black struggle that includes the esoteric sources of spiritual transport—the religious ecstasy that commonly contrasted the physical and existential torment of mundane living. These scenes of devout black Christians performing riverside baptisms or rolling and shouting ("slain in the spirit") during church ceremonies reveal the spark of inspiration that carries performers past professionalism into sublime artistry. Such scenes are key to the obscure tongues and eccentric prankishness that make gospel a popular religious music like no other.
As organized here, gospel art is felt as a parallel to social developments. The relay of styles and personalities is also a catalog of historic black-American cultural approaches. And though events of the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras stay largely offscreen (the urgency in Caesar’s "You’re Gonna Need Him" surpasses that of any current events), these gospel figures are seen passing through temporary sartorial fashions that represent the extracurricular pursuits essential to forming community. These varied efforts coincidentally established a basis of art that is spontaneous, profound and timelessly exciting.
Director Don McGlynn, who also directed Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog, finds very choice clips that commemorate artists at the genre’s mid-20th-century peak—The Dixie Hummingbirds, The Swan Silvertones, Mahalia Jackson— stars of the gospel circuit and the pop world. These numinous clips implicitly chronicle the soul salvation behind an art form as singers, composers and musicians—all worshippers—sought to sustain themselves despite lives of toil and hardship. "The Depression made strong people," Carpenter says of the gospel artists who had to be originators and revolutionaries on more than one level. This phenomenon of spiritual struggle and transcendence earns respect and awe.
That elation continues in the film’s distinctive visual style: The mostly blackand-white footage retains an aged luster that McGlynn shrewdly emphasizes when he doubles the image to include a simultaneous close-up view on the right. As much a celebration as Michael Wadleigh’s split-screen was in Woodstock, McGlynn’s directing choice isolates the elusive moments of Mahalia Jackson’s The Ed Sullivan Show appearance or Ira Tucker trading the mic with another vocalist during the Dixie Hummingbirds showstopper at Newport or Claude Jeter’s fantastic falsetto. They all hit glory. Preserving such moments should make Rejoice and Shout the documentary of the year.
Most of these clips were new to me, but a major part of McGlynn’s discovery is the beauty he wrought from these vintage, obscure materials. It fits the transformation inherent in gospel’s history. Rejoice and Shout’s information on evolving musical styles—from the Dinwiddie Colored Quarter in 1922 to Thomas A. Dorsey’s innovative gospel song structure—picks up where the 1983 Say Amen, Somebody left off. This film’s history-by-artist structure is enriched when interlocutor Mavis Staples’ own career (her youth and matron juxtaposition) becomes part of the larger story.
Yet there is an unmistakable sense from McGlynn’s sketchy, recent overview (such as the Kirk Franklin hip-hop years) that Rejoice and Shout chronicles a now lost, deracinated culture. That regret cannot be resolved by McGlynn pasting in Obama’s inauguration speech: "Tonight is your answer." It has no connection to the gospel legacy that Anthony Heilburt describes in Archie Bronwlee’s "wake-the-dead shout" or the liberation seen in Clara Ward and her sisters’ dance or Andraé Crouch’s testimony to "power in togetherness." Because some connection has been lost to the facts of "progress" and social fragmentation, that Obama clip is a glaring error; it represents a dreadful, patronizing secularization of what most of this film rightly sees as ineffable. Given the beauty and power on view in Rejoice and Shout, "art" is not a strong enough word for it.
>>Rejoice and Shout
Directed by Don McGlynn
At Film Forum
Runtime: 115 min.