SFIFF Film Review: “Rejoice and Shout”

by Jason LeRoy on April 26, 2010

Rejoice and Shout, the latest music documentary from director Don McGlynn (The Howlin’ Wolf Story, Somewhere Over The Rainbow: Harold Arlen, and many more) is the most thoroughly researched and exhaustive film about African-American gospel music ever committed to film. In telling the story of gospel in America, it simultaneously mirrors the entire narrative of the African-American experience, beginning with slavery and ending with the election of the nation’s first black president. It is an ambitious undertaking, and for the most part, it is successful.

One of the tensions in Rejoice and Shout is the difficulty in objectively telling the story of gospel music without necessarily participating in the deeply personal experiences of those in the film. The film opens with a fairly lengthy sequence in which the likes of Smokey Robinson and Andrae Crouch expound on their faith in God. Obviously you can’t tell the story of gospel music without a discussion of Christian spirituality, but there is something a bit unnecessary about some of these clips.

The whole point of gospel music is that it tells stories of faith and testifies about the glory of God in ways that mere words never could. When compared to the treasure trove of powerful music in this film, the interview testimonies seem a bit pithy in comparison. They also give the film an overtly evangelical tone that will be off-putting to audiences that aren’t already in the choir, so to speak.

Fortunately, the film gradually settles into a more academic structure once it begins its chronological retelling of the history of gospel music. As we are guided through the many different forms of gospel from the plantation days on through the great wars, the Civil Rights Era, and the modern period, we receive invaluable commentary from gospel scholars Anthony Helibut and Bill Carpenter, as well as gospel luminaries such as Robinson, Crouch, Mavis Staples, Ira Tucker, Marie Knight, Willa Ward, and Ira Tucker Jr.

Perhaps most spectacularly, we are treated to over an hour of extremely rare musical performances from the likes of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The Dixie Hummingbirds, Mahalia Jackson, The Swan Silvertones, The Clara Ward Singers, The Blind Boys of Alabama, The Staple Singers, The Edwin Hawkins Singers, and many more. These clips are the real attraction here. Rejoice and Shout is at its best when it stays out of its own way and lets the music speak for itself.

Ultimately, this is the film equivalent of listening to a lovingly curated gospel boxed set while reading the well-researched liner notes. While it runs a bit long and is unnecessarily personal at moments, its many musical sequences are undeniably rousing. From its opening moments of a prepubescent girl in The Selvey Family doing a jaw-dropping a capella performance of “Amazing Grace” in a church pew with her family, on through its barnstorming finale at Darrel Petties’ Memphis church, Rejoice and Shout is the definitive cinematic statement on American gospel music.

Read Also:

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: