“Gospel music has kept us afloat. It’s very important to Black people,” says Mavis Staples. Staples and Smokey Robinson narrate “Rejoice & Shout,” a comprehensive, historical and enlightening look at the phenomenon of gospel music.
Gospel music has evolved along with the African-American experience for more than 100 years. Originating with African sounds and culture, and blending with white Christian music, it’s a unique mixture that dates back to slavery when workers sang in the fields.
“Steal Away” was originally a coded song that alerted slaves that there would be a meeting; steal away and come. Scholars like Anthony Helibut and Bill Carpenter recall the genesis of the art form using facts, figures, photos and anecdotes.
The documentary finds sure footing when it plays the 1902 recording “Gabriel’s Trumpet,” by the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet from Virginia. This was the first time gospel music was put on record. The group’s vocals sounded somewhat like a barber shop quartet, which is a solid example of how gospel music spawned, inspired or co-opted other genres, blurring the lines between it and jazz, blues, country, rap, rock and inspirational.
All aspects of gospel music are explored. Its connection to church/religion (Pentecostal to Baptist), God (“A natural means of expressing spirituality,” says Smokey Robinson), family (Ward, Hawkins, Winans), history, social concerns (the Great Depression, civil rights movement) and mysticism (Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues).
The Dinwiddie Colored Quartet was just the first in a long string of recording artists who shaped gospel music. In the ‘40s, Thomas A. Dorsey performed in blues clubs at night and churches on Sundays, giving gospel its blues core with songs like “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” and “Peace in the Valley.”
Mahalia Jackson, a fan of Bessie Smith, was the first gospel crossover artist with stints on the “Ed Sullivan Show” and at Carnegie Hall. James Cleveland (Aretha Franklin’s mentor), the Edwin Hawkins Singers (“Oh Happy Day”), Andrae Crouch and other icons are on full view; some even perform songs in their entirety.
Archivist and producer Joe Lauro and documentarian/director Don McGlynn have wisely assembled the best of the best, in performance footage and first-hand interviews that make this very ambitious and significant film a thoughtful, heart-warming experience that gives credence to a musical form that has guided African-American culture.
The camera work of John Polsen and Steve Wacks is decent and the editing of Frank Axelsen is tight enough to give the film a rhythm that is methodical, but not annoyingly slow.
If shedding a light on history was the film’s only accomplishment, it would be relegated to the college circuit. It’s more than academic. This documentary entertains.
In the opening scene, an elementary school-age girl, from The Selvey Family, sings a perfectly crafted and emoted a capella version of “Amazing Grace” that would make Whitney Houston do a double take. It will give you chills.
And, there are moments when the film is inspirational, “Not the house. Not the car. Not the bling. Develop your spiritual self. That’s what you will take with you (when you pass),” says Smokey Robinson.
Hands down, “Rejoice & Shout” is the most definitive and uplifting film ever made about gospel music. And, that’s the gospel truth.
Visit NNPA film critic Dwight Brown at www.DwightBrownInk.com.