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Black Gospel Surveyed in Rejoice & Shout

  • Susan Ellingburg Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • 2011 6 Jun
  • COMMENTS
Black Gospel Surveyed in <i>Rejoice & Shout</i>

Release Date: June 3, 2011 (limited); June 17, 2011 (wider)
Rating: PG (for some mild thematic material and incidental smoking)
Genre: Documentary
Run Time: 115 min.
Director: Don McGlynn
Stars: Smokey Robinson, Mavis Staples and Willa Ward (as themselves)

“If we really heard God’s voice,” says Andraé Crouch as the film opens, “we’d be reduced to juice. We have to use other people to speak his Word because we wouldn’t be able to stand it.” Rejoice & Shout is a near-encyclopedic journey through the almost 200-year history of “other people” who spoke God’s Word through black gospel music.

First, the good news—literally. This documentary alternates between archival footage of gospel singers and celebrities speaking directly to the camera, often sharing their faith in the process. The stories—especially first-hand accounts of ‘the old days’—are fascinating. Nothing beats a personal testimony; though Smokey Robinson seems an odd addition to the mix. He speaks well, but is hardly known for singing gospel songs.

The reminiscences combine with historic footage, including the first recorded gospel song—from the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet way back in 1902. While the quality of the sound is unfortunate, the fact that it exists at all is amazing. It’s just one of many clips showcasing a wide variety of gospel performances, many capturing the sheer joy many singers have in sharing their musical gifts. The film bills itself as “a jubilant journey through gospel music history” and it is that. In fact, some viewers may occasionally find all that exuberance a bit much. Screaming, shaking, and other outward manifestations of the Spirit, however sincere, make for slightly odd viewing.Still, it’s a great reminder that, “You don’t go to church just to sit and watch. You go to participate.” And make no mistake, whether it’s in a storefront church or the Philadelphia Opera House, when gospel music is in the air we are definitely “having church.”

While the educational benefit of Rejoice & Shout is undeniable, non-academics would probably appreciate a bit more of a story arc. The history is basically chronological, but after a while the talking head commentary/music number/more commentary/more music flow feels a little stagnant. That’s too bad, because there are some real gems, especially in the second half of the film.

Rejoice & Shout is at its best when it focuses on individual stories of gospel music greats. Along with some contemporary stars like Andraé Crouch and The Winans, we meet people like Thomas A. Dorsey. The composer of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” was considered “the devil” back in the day because he used (gasp) blues chords in his church music. He was known for writing blues songs packed with dirty-minded double entendre for nightclubs while at the same time penning gospel songs for churches. It’s a credit to the film that it never tries to sugarcoat the complex humanity of its subjects.

Take the Gypsy-esque story of The Ward Singers, two sisters whose mom took her daughters out of school so they could sing to support her lifestyle. She booked them into Vegas venues, dressed them in stylish gowns (oh, those beehive hairdos), and kept suitors at arm’s length, all the while turning her girls into a singing sensation.

Of course, no history of gospel music would be complete without Mahalia Jackson. Arguably the best-known gospel singer of all time, Mahalia grew up wanting to sing the blues but her convictions wouldn’t let her. So she sang what she believed in the style that she loved and became a superstar. It was noted that “as many white people had her records as black people” and we get a song segment to show us why.

Popular or not, it was difficult for gospel groups to tour during the Jim Crow era. The film doesn’t pull any punches about the prejudice and hostility many groups encountered. Of course, hardship was nothing new to singers of gospel music—after all, it has its roots in slave days, when lyrics about crossing the River Jordan also stood for crossing the Mississippi into freedom. Nevertheless, clips of Martin Luther King and President Obama seem out of place and the film doesn’t so much come to a conclusion as it just stops.

While Rejoice & Shout may not be to everyone’s taste, it does provide valuable information and a historical perspective on a uniquely American art form. That alone is probably worthy of a shout or two.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol: Incidental smoking.
  • Language/Profanity: None noted.
  • Sex/Nudity: Brief dance number with scantily-clad women shaking fringed booty.
  •  Violence: Footage from civil rights marches shows police dragging marchers away; some church members’ spiritual encounters could be considered violent (shaking, screaming, etc.).