It always seemed like music was the only art where the subject didn’t matter. If there’s a good beat, a catchy hook, some sort of inventiveness, and/or intensified drive, most don’t care what the hell the singer is spewing, even if it’s about their specific belief system. Throw a bunch of hard-ass atheists on the dance floor and throw on “Jesus Walks”; see how many stomp their feet and protest (actually, don’t, keep reading). There’s numerous other examples (how many trendy God-hating teens like Christian-Metalcore band Underoath? Quick answer, too many), but for other mediums, it’s not the case. Religious imagery feels too pushy, and while books like the Koran and Old Testament are densely written, good luck finding someone interested in reading it just ’cause.
Gospel is probably the genre most firmly rooted in a specific theology, yet its appeal goes much further than one devoting themselves to religiosity. The tunes tend to have amazing verve and passion, not to mention some of the most soulful, talented singers to grace this planet. Those are the things that cross the barriers, what bring even the most secular up out of their seat to get up and channel that energy. Evolving over a century and incorporating various different influences such as rock ‘n’ roll and hip-hop beats, gospel has quite a history that Don McGlynn’s near two-hour documentary “Rejoice and Shout” hopes to cover with insight provided by Smokey Robinson, Mavis Staples (of The Staple Sisters), Darrel Petties (contemporary singer), and Bil Carpenter (author of “The Gospel Encyclopedia“).
Those that feel slighted by music bio pics/docs that try to cover 60-80 years of a person’s life and end up feeling like a buffet of events barely touched on might be a little miffed that a musical genre with more than a hundred years worth of history is condensed to two hours. It’s a legitimate response, as a topic so far reaching really deserves a more respectful delivery, maybe in the form of a television series that involves short 30-45 minute spurts but ultimately spans a dozen or so episodes. What we have now both feels too insubstantial and quite dragging: the structure of focusing on various popular groups and singers (The Blind Boys, Thomas Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson) is done as if they were Spark Notes, but the formulaic nature of presenting each artist (talking head intro on where they’re from and how popular they were followed by the entire video of one of their songs) make the flick feel drawn out even though they’re merely grazing over meaty chronicles.
“Rejoice and Shout” can’t convey the appropriate amount of information, nor can it channel the energy of the music itself — but it does succeed in feeling deeply personal. The film opens with a young girl surrounded by an audience of five or six as she belts out a tune from the heart. While McGlynn’s constant cutting keeps the moment from being too intimate, the opener does set the mood and exploration of the most flourishing agenda of the project — the deep impact the melodious sounds have had on their lives. The interviewees all have a personal stake in what they’re talking about as most of them are family members of the singers at hand or singers themselves; in fact, quite often were they part of their parents’ team. Everyone has an opinion that goes further than their respective act — Willa Ward (of The Famous Ward Singers) and her brothers speak of the great venues and the lack of ego displayed by some of the more popular groups; Mavis Staples is a walking time capsule of info on such acts as Rosetta Tharpe, Dinwetta Quartet, etc. All are fondly recalled and their worth is argued, along with each person discussing how their music affected them growing up within each time period (dealing heavily in the Jim Crow era).
Of course, the time constraints leave a lot of the more interesting stories as simplified bullet points. The Swan Silvertones being the first (or most recognized) to use falsetto in their tunes is fine to touch on so briefly, but juicier stuff — like Gertrude Ward keeping her daughter away from pop stardom by making phone calls and having her solo shows cancelled — is too good to be given the same treatment. Also, even though the movie’s emphasis on the musicians call for it, the inclusion of entire songs by various singers (complete with a video and no interruption) gets quite taxing towards the middle. It’s McGlynn’s most consistent problem — he doesn’t know when to move or when to stay put. His attempts at making these archival performances easier to swallow are too obvious: a performance will be shown for a minute, and the next minute it will split in two and show both side by side, the original intact but the other artificially zoomed in. Maybe this technique would’ve worked twice, but it’s consistent appearance only shows a serious desperation for b-roll more than anything, leaving one to wonder if there was no better way to keep the film moving.
“Rejoice and Shout” is by no means offensive, but it certainly bites off more than it can chew. Tracking its origin back to the songs of plantation workers all the way up to its present incarnations, the project could’ve struck stronger chords if its scope was a bit narrower. While full of plenty of good information and understanding, it’s not as absorbing as it should be and has more in common with those passive late-night infomercials than a truly worthy documentary about music. What keeps it from really sinking are those personally involved, but they can only do so much. [C]