Gospel's joyful noise outshines the history
Rejoice & Shout, director Don McGlynn's history of gospel music - going all the way back to the Dinwidee Colored Quartet's first known gospel recording in 1902 - is a relentlessly chronological, talking-head documentary that sets itself the impossible task of telling the whole rousing, spirit-lifting story of African American Christian music from slavery till now.
That can't be done, of course - not in two hours, anyway. And as a result, McGlynn's survey of praise music feels meaty in some respects and meager in others. Ample attention is paid, for instance, to many a Philadelphia-connected act, including the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Clara Ward Singers, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the guitar-slinging gospel shouter buried in Northwood Cemetery in North Philadelphia.
McGlynn, who has made music docs about Howlin' Wolf, Louis Prima, and others, is intent on shining a light on well-deserving talents like the Swan Silvertones and their singer Claude Jeter, who possessed a fabulous falsetto that, we are rightly told, mightily influenced Al Green.
However, we never hear a minute of music from Green, who has spent as many years singing gospel as pop.
It's as if there's no room, or time, for nonpurists in McGlynn's vision. The same approach is taken with the Rev. James Cleveland, the Chicago composer and arranger who's known as the father of gospel music, vis a vis Aretha Franklin. It's certainly interesting that Franklin was a student of Cleveland's; it would have been really nice to see a clip of Retha singing, say, "Take My Hand, Precious Lord."
That quibble aside, let's also say this: The great thing about Rejoice & Shout is the music. And unlike so many other documentary makers, McGlynn has the good sense to let each performance run from beginning to end.
So once the lineup of astute commentators - who include Smokey Robinson, Mavis Staples, and gospel historian Bill Carpenter - get through having their say, and putting the music into context within church traditions, we get to be wowed by Sister Rosetta or Mahalia Jackson or the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi or the Staple Singers or the Golden Gate Quartet.
Many of the performances are spectacular. And as a result of painstaking restoration work, older clips of the likes of the Silvertones and Hummingbirds - whose late leader Ira Tucker is interviewed along with his son Ira Jr. and Willa Ward in scenes shot at the old Metropolitan Opera House on North Broad Street - sound and look great. Anyone with a casual interest in gospel music stands to learn a lot by seeing Rejoice & Shout; a true fan won't want to miss it.