What I don’t know about gospel music could fill a library, but I’m willing to learn, and the lively documentary called Rejoice and Shout is a perfect tutorial. What’s more,
it’s certain to create a flock of converts to this soulful brand of American song. The film opens with a jaw-dropping performance of “Amazing Grace” by a little girl who sits in church with her family—a vivid illustration of how this tradition has been passed from one generation to another. It’s also a perfect way to lead us into the story of gospel music.
Several experts and historians help chart our path, as we see rare and fascinating archival footage spanning the 20th century, but the highlights are vintage performances—that play out, for the most part, in their entirety—and feature some of the all-time greats of gospel. There is a clip of Mahalia Jackson from The Ed Sullivan Show singing “These Are They” that steadily —
—builds in intensity, from one chorus to the next; when it’s over you feel almost overpowered. Others featured in the film include the irrepressible Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The Dixie Hummingbirds, The Swan Silvertones, and the Staples Singers, to name just a few.
The late Ira Tucker, the last surviving member of the Dixie Hummingbirds, is just one of the interview subjects who personalizes the history of gospel, recalling his experiences both in church and in show business, along with such notable performers as Smokey Robinson, Willa Ward of the Ward Singers, and Mavis Staples.
Rejoice and Shout is both a historical document and a celebration. Director Don McGlynn and producer Joe Lauro have spent most of their professional lives unearthing rare music footage, and this film has given them a perfect vehicle to express their knowledge and enthusiasm. I will confess that I found the contemporary performers who appear toward the end of the film less compelling than the greats of the past…but that can’t dissipate the impact of the film’s great stars, or evocative historical footage.
One final note: it’s well worth making an effort to see this film on a theater screen. (It opens today at Film Forum in Manhattan, with dates in Los Angeles and other cities to follow.) This rousing music was meant to be shared with an audience, whether it be in a church or a movie theater.