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Gospel music documentary a spiritual awakening

A white American expatriate living in Denmark has become the first filmmaker to direct a documentary feature about black gospel music.
/ Source: Reuters

A white American expatriate living in Denmark has become the first filmmaker to direct a documentary feature about black gospel music.

"Rejoice and Shout," which has just begun a limited run in North American theaters, traces the 200-year evolution of gospel from southern slave plantations to the modern-day blending of urban pop elements.

It includes rare, full-length performance footage dating back to the 1920s, uplifting religious scenes, and interviews with the likes of late Dixie Hummingbirds lead singer Ira Tucker, Sr., Mavis Staples and Smokey Robinson.

The film narrows its focus to 15 artists, including the Golden Gate Quartet, the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Swan Silvertones, Thomas Dorsey, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson and Andrae Crouch.

"Rejoice and Shout" was directed by Don McGlynn ("The Howlin' Wolf Story"), and produced by Joe Lauro who owns a film archive boasting more than 30,000 individual musical performances.

McGlynn, 55, who lives in Copenhagen with his Danish wife and their children, said in a recent interview that he was introduced to gospel as a youngster when he saw Mahalia Jackson -- "the queen of gospel" -- on television, just like "every little kid in America.


"Then I started seeking it out more in particular," McGlynn added. "Among the greatest shows I've ever seen and certainly the most intense show I ever saw was James Cleveland with his choir (in the early 1980s). I literally thought the walls were gonna come down, it was so intense!

"I've also seen the Blind Boys of Alabama a few times, same thing. They just completely ripped the place apart."

So it was with a mix of elation and sorrow that he spent two years in an editing room, selecting 70 minutes of footage from "dozens and dozens of hours."

Many gospel stars ended up on the cutting room floor. Some did not even get that far because no footage exists. Thus the film largely ignores R.H. Harris and Sam Cooke, gospel superstars who served as lead singers of the Soul Stirrers, perhaps the greatest gospel harmony group ever.

"Even though that's one of my favorite groups, the Soul Stirrers, I was just so sad there wasn't anything," McGlynn said. "I love Sam Cooke too, individually, his great solo records. But these things happen sometimes."

Cooke's diverse career was covered a few years ago in a Grammy-winning documentary. But viewers wanting to find out more about Harris, who died in obscurity in 2000, will have to dig deeply. He merely rates a Wikipedia stub.

Because of the scope of the project, "Rejoice and Shout" does not delve too deeply into the lives of its subjects. Clara Ward, viewers learn, was suffocated (metaphorically) by a controlling stage mother. Prolific songwriter Thomas Dorsey, whose many gems include "Peace in the Valley," also composed filthy blues tunes.

But "king of gospel" the Rev. James Cleveland's reported double life as a closeted gay man is not discussed, nor indeed is the vibrant gay subculture in gospel.

"James Cleveland is so magnificent and so important, I didn't need to wave a flag about his problems," McGlynn said. "I wonder how he felt being gay in that circumstance?"

Cleveland died in 1991 with an estate worth an estimated $6 million, while others died in poverty. The financial angle also goes unmentioned.

With the exception of Edwin Hawkins' massive 1969 pop hit "Oh Happy Day," gospel's crossover appeal to the white mainstream is largely overlooked. The Dixie Hummingbirds and Claude Jeter of the Swan Silvertones recorded with Paul Simon. Kirk Franklin reached the top 10 of the pop charts in the 1990s. Gospel music was used for the Coen brothers' 2000 movie "Oh, Brother Where Art Thou?"

McGlynn hopes moviegoers will take the critically acclaimed film's title to heart, and treat it like a religious experience.

"There's an experiential thing about seeing it with other people," he said. "I'd like to see people talk back to the screen. We did a lot of work on the sound to make it enveloping and I really hope they do that."

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