You don't have to wait for church doors to open on Sunday to hear some amazing gospel music. Right now, at selected local theaters around the country, a large chorus of voices is making a joyful noise in a new soul-stirring documentary Rejoice and Shout.
The film's award-winning director, Don McGlynn, has created a two-hour unabashed love letter to African-American gospel music, full of glorious scenes of singing, dancing and sermonizing, aided by critical commentary by experts. It mixes rare recordings and interviews of influential gospel figures with archival film and TV footage by some of the genre's biggest icons, including Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Dixie Hummingbirds, and the Staple Singers. Lesser-known acts performing various styles of black gospel music from four-part harmonies to torch singing are also represented.
The film traces the 200-year evolution of gospel, from the first hymns and spirituals to today's elements of hip-hop and rap. Gospel music evolved out of plantation work songs and Christian hymns in the 1880s and first became popular among the highly participatory black churchgoers of the Pentecostal tradition. "Gospel music is the most intense and powerful music you're ever going to hear, "says McGlynn, during a phone interview from his hometown in Minnesota, where he is visiting family. (He now lives in Copenhagen.). "It has this deep commitment that comes out of the religious beliefs of the people performing it."
"There are fans that really like harmonies of vocal groups, like the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, and then there are others who just love the fabulous singer, like Yolanda Adams. I'm one of those guys that likes it all," says the Irish-Catholic McGlynn, 55, who listened to all kinds of music growing up, including gospel, which he loved for its spiritual uplift "One of the best shows I ever saw was James Cleveland and his choir in the 1980s."
The film breaks some new ground: Some of the performances featured in it have never been exhibited. Among McGlynn's findings was a sound film of the Utica Quartet singing Deep River in 1922, five years before the release of The Jazz Singer, the pioneer talking picture.