By: Joseph Middleton
"Rejoice and Shout", released by Magnolia Pictures, directed by Don McGlynn and produced by Joe Lauro, is a rousing, educational gem of a documentary. I was lucky enough to catch a pre-screening of "Rejoice and Shout" with friends in tow in Humble, TX on Thursday, June 2.
Like any good gospel documentary, "Rejoice and Shout" begins by discussing the spiritual perspective of black gospel music, and the genesis of black gospel music from the Dr. Watts hymns, to the plantation grounds as enslaved blacks sang the songs telling of the good news in bad times (no plagiarism intended to Anthony Heilbut, but that portion of your landmark book's title describes the situation wonderfully!). The documentary, featuring gospel music historians Bil Carpenter, Jacquie Gayles Webb and Heilbut, presents the history of gospel music in the United States through and after slavery, starting with the world renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers, and on through the early 20th century via priceless videos and audio recordings, some dating back to over 100 years ago. The Dinwiddle Quartet is featured in the documentary as one of the first black quartets to make an audio recording back in 1902. The 109 year old recording is played in the film, and is a delight to hear. One film recording from 1922 of the Utica Quartet predates Bessie Smith's "The Jazz Singer", one of the first "talkies" by five years.
The documentary then covers the great migration of blacks from the 1920s through the 1930s from the South to cities like Detroit and Chicago, two of the hotbed cities of Golden Era Gospel. Mahalia Jackson is covered at length, as are Claude Jeter and the Swan Silvertones, Thomas A. Dorsey, the Golden Gate Quartet, the incomparable Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Clara Ward Singers (featuring an insightful story about Gertrude "Mama Gert" Ward's control over her daughters), Ira Tucker and the Dixie Hummingbirds, James Cleveland, the Caravans, Jackie Verdell of the Davis Sisters and Brother Joe May, the Soul Stirrers, the Staple Singers, the Blind Boys of Mississippi and the Blind Boys of Alabama. This documentary is not just limited to singers, either. Famous preachers such as Daddy Grace and King Louis H. Narcisse were featured, too.
Interspersed throughout the film is footage that likely hasn't seen daylight in decades, including breathtaking color footage of churchgoers from the 1940s. I will have to look again, but I think I spied songwriter Lucie Eddie Campbell-Williams in the color footage, though that will take a second screening to confirm.
Interviews in the documentary with the late Ira Tucker and the late Marie Knight shortly before their deaths in 2008 and 2009 respectively are a treat, and the documentary is dedicated in their memory. Also interviewed were other Golden Era hardhitters, Mavis Staples of the Staple Singers, Willa Ward of the Clara Ward Singers, and R&B stalwart, Smokey Robinson, who noted, without groups like the Dixie Hummingbirds with their ornate stage presence and dance steps, there would be no influence for the Temptations.
Make no mistake, I was tapping my feet, singing along and nodding my head as clips featuring the aforementioned singers and groups were played, and my friends were especially enthralled by the "clean" and "slick" appearance of the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Swan Silvertones with their conks and white suits from the 1940s and 50s, but I feel a lot of important history was left out. I didn't recall any mention of Dorothy Love Coates and the Gospel Harmonettes, Rev. Charles Nicks, Prof. Alex Bradford, the Barrett Sisters, the Meditation Singers, Mattie Moss-Clark, the Swanee Quintet, the Pilgrim Jubilees, and perhaps the most surprising of all was the omission of both Marion Williams (I'm surprised that you can cover the Wards and leave out Marion) and, singer, songwriter, accompanist and arranger Roberta Martin, one of the BIGGEST names of the Golden Era who was rivaled only by Mahalia Jackson in the Chicago and national black gospel scene of the 40s-60s.
To McGlynn's and Lauro's credit, over 10,000 hours of footage was accumulated, eventually whittled down to three hours and then to a reasonable one and a half hours. Perhaps some of those names had to be unfortunately cut to fit within the time constraints. While the material as it stands is no doubt extensive, to adequately cover all of the hardhitters of the Golden Era of Gospel in a documentary would likely require an amount of money that might surpass the funding for "Rejoice and Shout", and certainly a running time of over four hours. Maybe a multi-part sequel purely about the Golden Era is in order? Or maybe a DVD with bonus features including the cut clips?
After covering the Golden Era, the documentary begins to snake into the realm of modern gospel music, starting with the break from the Golden Era to the Modern Era in 1968 with Edwin Hawkins' groundshaking arrangement of "Oh Happy Day", an interview by Pastor Andrae Crouch, an interview with Smokey Robinson on the importance of the influence of rap and hip-hop in modern gospel, and concert appearances by current traditional artists, the Selvy Family and Darrel Petties. In one of the most memorable, crowd pleasing scenes, the Selvys "beat" the devil, who is represented by a life-sized, stuffed doll.
Despite the absence of so much Golden Era Gospel history, I left the theater satisfied. I even learned a few things along the way, which is perhaps the most important thing of all.
"Rejoice and Shout" is a limited release film, so if you can't catch it in a city near you, I highly recommend that you purchase the DVD when it comes out. Any die-hard gospel fan would be remiss to omit this documentary from their collection.
I'll close this review with Joe Lauro's explanation about the importance of gospel music:
“The underlying message was just to show that it’s all about the same thing. It’s all about the power of the Lord, and how the music gives you salvation and release.”
Three out of four stars.
Special thanks to the Houston Sun for hosting this event, AMC 24 Deerbrook in Humble for showing the documentary, good friend and blog supporter Chelsey R. for the guest pass, and my other good friend and fellow singer, K. Armel for accompanying us.