Some documentaries are too sure of the answers and “Rejoice and Shout” is like that from the very beginning. Smokey Robinson opening statements give a few atheists and agnostics room for snarky comments. For others, we might feel we are missing out on something because of what we don’t know about gospel music and its legends.
And then there are the people who aren’t mentioned such as the young girl who performs a stirring rendition of “Amazing Grace” as a member of The Selvy Family Singers. Just what does she think about her gift and her legacy? We don’t know.
Sure I know Smokey Robinson, but I also don’t know many of the people that this documentary names and even how they figure in the larger picture of American music. Director Don McGlynn with Joe Lauro took three years to make this documentary and the full title is: “Rejoice and Shout: The History of African-American Gospel Music in America.”
McGlynn tries to follow the history of gospel in chronological order, starting on the Southern plantations and touching on the importance of Christianity and church. And what about the pre-American roots that were most likely non-Christian? We learn that though slaves were “pushed into the European way of God, they brought with them their own spirit.” But this would be clearer if worship in the many different tribes in Africa was better defined.
What’s great about this film is the archival performances by some of gospel’s great legends: Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The Swan Silverstones, Dixie Hummingbirds, Andrae Crouch and Edwin Hawkins Singers. There are interviews with the aforementioned Robinson, Mavis Staples, Willa Ward (of the Clara Ward Singers), Ira Tucker (of Dixie Hummingbirds) and Madame Marie Knight and others.
Some of the visual choices, besides the talking heads, seem hokey such as using a split screen to show the same images except on cropped more tightly for a close up. Some of the images go unexplained such as the early segment in what seems to be a railroad track with African Americans with a pig on a lead.
One can’t help wondering what do other historians think. Where are the opposing views? How did this style come from these transported Africans to the United States and exist nowhere else? And what about the influence of gospel into the pagan rock and roll?
McGlynn also oversteps history by making visual allusions to both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who was not a gospel singer and our current president, Barack Obama. Both men made history, but is it really right to include them in this history? It’s a stretch.
The documentary could have used some judicious editing. With a run time of 115 minutes, it feels too long when music should lift you up and make you rejoice to much that time seems to slip by.
This film isn’t showing in Pasadena, but after Make Music Pasadena, it seems worth-mentioning.