Review written by Carlos Holmes, Director of News Services, Delaware State University
There is no documentary short of a music history series that could possibly capture all of the developing facets of the story of gospel music. The latest such documentary, Rejoice and Shout, has to be viewed with that understanding, lest unfair criticism paints an unjust picture of inadequacy where this film's effort is concerned.
With Rejoice and Shout, it is easy to forgive the gospel music areas that are not well covered and the historically worthy artists who are omitted. The strength of what is presented – credible historical perspectives given by music historians and artists, interspersed with priceless clips of the musical architects of gospel art form – will leave most viewers earnestly thankful for the passion and depth of the cinematic experience.
While the historical background given on camera by Bill Carpenter (author of Uncloudy Day: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia, gospel historian Anthony Heilbut and others are indeed valuable contributions to the documentary, the best parts come from the actual clips of the powerful performances by groups such as The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Clara Ward Singers, the Dixie Hummingbirds and others.
For folks who have only heard of Mahalia Jackson or simply been briefly exposed to her music in passing, her performance clip of her singing "Move on Up a Little Higher" in this documentary provides an opportunity to experience her unique power and melodious vibrato that is unmatched even to this day.
The documentary gives some clip time to the more contemporary gospel artists of the last four decades such as James Cleveland, Edwin Hawkins (curiously barely mentioning the more prolific brother Walter Hawkins), the Staples Singers, and finally Kirk Franklin. However, the filmmakers (director Don McGlynn) apparently made a conscious decision to focus most of the film on the gospel artist of the more distant yesteryears.
That understanding makes the omission of Richard Smallwood – the contemporary Mozart of black gospel music – and other worthy artists a bit easier to take. After all, Rejoice & Shout is more about the roots of gospel music than who among today's artists should be spoken of in the same breath as this Christian genre's trailblazers.
The real strength of Rejoice & Shout beyond historic details and rich nostalgic footage is the illumination of the performance styles that we take for granted today such as the advent of soloist duos and the vibrant call and response they used to fire up churches and stages. Any church director who has trouble getting some volume out of its group should drag the whole choir to learn from the robust passion and powerful vocals that was the absolute standard for these forbearers.
The documentary touches upon just enough of the contemporary to show later evolutionary tracks such as the Hawkins Family and Andre Crouch's infusion of R&B sensibilities, and Kirk Franklin's hip-hop stamp on black gospel. And what some might think would be better at the end of Rejoice and Shout is actually performed in the beginning of the film – a very young member of the Selvey Family Singers belting out a slamming version of "Amazing Grace."
It's placement in the film notwithstanding, the young Selvey singer's heartfelt rendition is exactly the point of Rejoice and Shout – that her musical fruits and those manifested by countless other gospel singers, from the bona fide artists to the faithful church choir members, are the soulful product of generations of gospel music architects and stylists that preceded them.