(*homocinematically inclined)

Friday, June 3, 2011

Reverend's Reviews: Sing Out, Louise!

"If we really heard the voice of God, we would be reduced to juice. The vibration of His voice would reduce us to liquid... so He has to use other people to speak His word."

So says singer-turned-pastor Andrae Crouch at the start of Rejoice and Shout, a wonderful new documentary about the evolution of Gospel music from Magnolia Pictures that opens today in New York and June 24 in Los Angeles. I likely would have loved the movie solely for incorporating footage of the late, great Mahalia Jackson, but when you throw Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Clara and Willa Ward, the original Five Blind Boys of Alabama and the Edwin Hawkins Singers ("Oh Happy Day") into the mix, it constitutes a near-instant classic.

As this sweeping film (made by the longtime team of director Don McGlynn and producer Joe Lauro) points out, Gospel music has long represented freedom in times of slavery and oppression. The first known or recognized Gospel record was recorded in 1902 by the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet. The film's press notes point out that this was nearly 20 years before any African-American blues or jazz recordings were made. Influenced by their relatives' experience of having worked on Southern plantations for white masters, these black musicians struck a multi-cultural nerve.

Other Gospel musicians honed their craft through the Great Depression and two World Wars. These included the "controversial" Thomas A. Dorsey, who wrote both spiritual and secular songs that often seemed at odds with one another. And then there's Mahalia, who started out as a hairdresser aspiring to sound like her idol, Bessie Smith, and ultimately "crossed all barriers" performing Gospel songs on The Ed Sullivan Show. As Smokey Robinson says in the film, "Just as many white people had Mahalia Jackson in their homes, listening to her, as black people did." Heck, I have several Mahalia compilations I listen to on a semi-regular basis today.

Interviews with scholars, authors and contemporary musicians are incorporated throughout Rejoice and Shout and provide essential, generally objective perspectives. The movie also utilizes restored archival footage of the most significant figures in Gospel music. There were a couple of premature edits or reel changes in the print I viewed, but these were hopefully unique and won't be observed elsewhere.

"Faith is the thing that keeps you going," according to on-screen commentator Bill Carpenter (no relation). He won't find an argument from me, nor will the numerous musicians recounted over 150 years of often-painful American history in Rejoice and Shout.

In a natural progression, six backup singers of various ethnicities yearn for headliner status in the new DVD release This Time, available now from Village Art Pictures. Having once sung with the likes of Elvis Presley, Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield and Aretha Franklin, these talented individuals have more recently battled homelessness and the brutality of the music industry in an effort to become stars themselves.

This similarly-exceptional documentary features three queer subjects in addition to its openly gay director-photographer-editor, Victor Mignatti (who directed chapters 13-22 of R. Kelly's infamous "Trapped in the Closet" music video). The GLBT folks shown are cabaret singer Bobby Belfry, music producer Peitor Angell, and Estelle Brown, now a lesbian minister who co-founded the Unity Fellowship Church in Los Angeles. The talents of all concerned are on full display here, and their music is both inspiring and entertaining.

Feel free to sing along to both of these films, whether you'll be watching in a theatre, at home or at your local worship center.

Reverend's Ratings:
Rejoice and Shout: A-
This Time: B+

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

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