Title: Rejoice and Shout
Director: Don McGlynn
Featuring: Mavis Staples, Smokey Robinson, Ira Tucker, Willa Ward and many more
Because of the very simple nature of the human voice, and what its sound means to us, music captures the human experience in a special way that other art forms cannot. If joy is nearly impossible to contrive, then listening to the joyous, excited and unblinkingly forthright celebration and expression of community, faith and gratitude to simply be alive can be a profoundly moving experience, one impractical to resist. Such are the life lessons communicated by Don McGlynn’s ‘Rejoice and Shout’, an exhaustively comprehensive documentary about the 200-year musical history of African-American Christianity.
Gospel music is of course informed by the plantation and slavery experience of African-Americans many generations ago, and McGlynn — a filmmaker well-versed in musical documentaries — connects that historical fact to the unbowed spirit of its earliest practitioners and progenitors, while also tracing it all the way forward in time to the emotional, participatory qualities of worship still found in many predominantly African-American churches. Using a wide-ranging roster of interview subjects, from academics like ‘The Gospel Sound’ author Anthony Heilbut to singers like Ira Tucker, Smokey Robinson, Mavis Staples and more, McGlynn crafts a genre-specific portrait that may be among the most detailed in all of music-related nonfiction film.
Clocking in at just under two hours, Rejoice and Shout is culled from hundreds of hours of footage, including plenty of material from the personal collection of producer Joe Lauro. While segments on the groundbreaking Dinwiddie Colored Quartet and the falsetto-gifted Claude Jeter (a big influence on Al Green) prove fascinating, one of the most interesting things about McGlynn’s movie is that it actually features about an hour’s worth of performances when all tallied up, making the movie a defacto concert film. For music fans, that aspect in particular is a real treat.
If there’s a strike against ‘Rejoice and Shout’, it’s that this is still an insider’s document through and through, and built for long-haul enjoyment by an audience more specialized than general. In his review of the movie, ‘Hollywood Reporter’ critic Kirk Honeycutt noted that while some documentaries can be accused of preaching to the choir, this is one in which that is true but the choir also preaches back. Some effort is made to tie in gospel music — and in particular its unabashed joyousness — with all of the other forms of music which it clearly inspired, but perhaps a bit more macro-level contextualization and sociopolitical mooring would have highlighted the fact that gospel music, while inextricably linked to religious faith, has also had an enormous impact on all American popular music, and thus American culture writ large.
Written by: Brent Simon