November 26, 2011 -- This documentary film about the history of gospel music in America makes a good companion piece to an earlier documentary film called “Say Amen, Somebody” which focused on gospel music pioneers Thomas A. Dorsey and Willie May Ford Smith. “Rejoice and Shout” is more of an overview of the complete history of gospel music from its roots to the earliest recordings to the present.
Two of the best-known talking heads in the film are Mavis Staples of the Staples Singers and famous singer-songwriter Smokey Robinson of Motown Records. The film opens with an amazing a cappella solo by a very young girl with a very big voice who is part of The Selvy Family gospel singers. The Selvy Family is one of several gospel groups who are shown in performances, either live, or in archival film or sound recordings during the course of the film.
The roots of gospel music go back to the days of slavery in America. The film makes the argument that slaves adapted to Christianity, and in effect, Christianity adapted to the slaves, too, in terms of the development of gospel music, at the very least. These days, the effects of slave-influenced gospel music are felt in worship services all over the world, even in all-white congregations.
The most obvious influences of this are the great crossover artists, like the incomparable Mahalia Jackson, who grew up listening to blues music but ended up being the greatest gospel singer ever. Then you have singers like Aretha Franklin, who grew up on gospel music and used that style of music to deeply influence pop music. The Staples Singers became a major force in gospel music, but also became very successful pop music artists with such songs as “I'll Take You There” and “Let's Do it Again.” The Staples Singers even made it on stage with some of the most famous musicians of all time in the greatest rock documentary ever made, Martin Scorcese's “The Last Waltz.”
One of the gospel musicians with the greatest influence on pop music was Sister Rosetta Tharp, who attained great popularity in the 1930s and 1940s. Although a gospel artist, she is also considered a pioneer of rock and roll. Tharp was a master of the electric guitar and her playing influenced generations of other rock and rollers who followed. Tharp was also a crossover blues artist, touring with Muddy Waters and others. She began performing at the age of four and her career spanned more than 40 years into the 1970s. A performance by Tharp closes out the film as the credits roll.
Gospel music, it seems, influences all of pop music in one way or another. Gospel music also absorbed all other musical styles, from traditional to hip hop and rap and rock and roll. Gospel music changes with each new generation of believers. The music may be different, but the message is the same. It is an expression of faith. That Christian faith is a key element in the film, inseparable from the music. As Smokey Robinson put it, “If some old people hear kids rapping to god, and it offends them, too bad buddy, because these kids are praising god and that's how they do it.”
The long arc of gospel music includes music very similar to traditional barbershop quartet vocals. The oldest known commercial recording of gospel music is a 1902 Victor Talking Machine record of the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet singing “Gabriel's Trumpet.” Played as part of the film, it features an early example of the call and response style of gospel singing. Tight vocal harmonies remained popular in many forms of music ever since. One of the most successful gospel groups of all time is The Blind Boys of Alabama. Another similar group that was also achieved great success was the Blind Boys of Mississippi. Both groups arose because of the popularity of musical education at schools for the blind in the 1930s.
The film includes a number of outstanding musical performances by these and other gospel groups, soloists and other musicians. This is a good film for fans of gospel music, or just people who want to find out about the history of gospel music. This film rates a B.
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