Film Review: Rejoice and Shout

Sublime documentary examination of the gospel sound is one of the most sheerly enjoyable films of the year.

The history of gospel music is definitively covered in the invigorating, exhaustive documentary Rejoice and Shout, lovingly assembled by Don McGlynn. McGlynn traces its roots from the American South where, beset by slavery, violence, imprisonment and bigotry, this music was both a needed escape and true inspiration to oppressed blacks. The Northern migration of much of this population often proved disappointing, as what they found there was usually not much better, and sometimes worse, than what they'd left behind. But the music endured, finding new, innovative forms progressively with each generation.

Invaluable performance clips form the pulsing heart of the film and you will thrill to see the explosive duet between the great Ira Tucker and James Walker at the Newport Jazz Festival; Mahalia Jackson, justly extolled for the elemental, crossover legend she was; and Clara Ward, swinging with her besequinned backup girls to the funkiest "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" you've ever heard. A real blessing is the way these clips are shown in their fabulous entirety. In an era of often infuriating sound-byte brevity, it is greatly to McGlynn's credit that he trusts the audience's intelligence, taste and attention span enough to deliver these performance jewels fully intact.

The film gets off to a bracing start with a tiny girl member of The Selvey Family, a contemporary singing clan, delivering an a capella, melisma-filled "Amazing Grace" that is nothing short of phenomenal.

Tucker himself is interviewed, as are Clara Ward's sister Willa, Mavis Staples and other wonderfully alive musical legends whose words add untold flavor and richness. Smokey Robinson avers that all American music, from jazz to rock, stems from gospel and, hearing all the myriad examples in its history here, you cannot doubt that for an instant. You also learn about figures like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, that rare female guitarist who had phenomenal, million-selling record success at a time when moving even a few thousand records was considered a big deal. Staples recalls her as a big child at heart, who would sit and play jacks between sessions and "was always going downtown to shop and coming back married."

Vital to the music's creative progression were the quartet groups, which were religious variants of the traditional barbershop quartet singers but went far beyond them with brilliant harmonies and rhythm sense. The Dixie Hummingbirds (who appeared on Paul Simon's "Love Me Like a Rock") innovated the double vocal lead, which really changed things, and such paragons as the pioneering Dinwidde Colored Quartet (who made the first African-American religious records in 1902), the Golden Gate Quartet (who were the first African-Americans to perform at the White House, for FDR's 1941 inauguration) and the electrifying Five Blind Boys of Mississippi are among those wonderfully mentioned.

And then there was Claude Jeter, whose sexy, honeyed falsetto vocals made The Swan Silvertones a darling of critics and audiences alike, and greatly influenced the magnificent stylings of Al Green. The masterfully sustained rhythm and perfect pitch displayed in by this group draw you in hypnotically. But this is but one of the plethora of riches to be discovered. Give yourself over to this musical feast and you will come out of it—whatever your spiritual beliefs—completely uplifted and revivified.