Rejoice and Shout, Don McGlynn’s documentary on the history of gospel music, is a film for connoisseurs. Dealing almost perfunctorily with the art form’s historical and social importance, the majority of the project is devoted to profiles of individual performers. (Though one wonders why the filmmakers couldn’t find room for Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, who rate only a brief mention.) While the already converted may relish the critical insights provided about their favorite artists as well as the chance to make the acquaintance of lesser known performers, those less fanatical viewers are likely to be overwhelmed by the sameness of the film’s numerous segments, all of which follow the identical pattern of stock footage combined with reminiscences by surviving contemporaries and critical commentary by experts.
Although gospel is obviously a religious music, McGlynn devotes far too much screen time to performers—ranging from Smokey Robinson to Andraé Crouch—extolling the glory of God. (Robinson’s as talented a musician as anyone, but do we really need the “Tracks of My Tears” singer to explain in detail how the wonders of the natural world constitute definitive proof of a divine power?) Beginning his film with these testimonials, McGlynn risks losing the non-believing viewer, but keeps us hooked sufficiently by continually cutting away to clips of musical performances. Indeed, the music is undoubtedly the film’s chief strength, and Rejoice and Shout is full of a generous selection of choice clips, from the Dixie Hummingbirds at the Newport Folk Festival, their two lead singers trading off vocals at an increasingly rapid pace on a single mic, to footage of the Blind Boys of Alabama participating in a showdown with their counterpart, the Blind Boys of Mississippi.
These performances are accompanied by plenty of useful critical insight from a trio of experts explaining the singers’ particular innovations and the nature of their achievements. This illuminating perspective is mirrored by the film’s roughly 15 minutes devoted to the music’s history. Tracing gospel’s roots in slavery, its combination of white religious ideas, imposed by slave owners, with African musical traditions and its subsequent absorption of various other American traditions, the doc shows an understanding of both the music’s complex lineage and its importance in black culture, the latter exemplified by an African-American performer’s comment that “gospel music is what has kept us afloat.”
But before long, McGlynn abandons almost all interest in examining the music’s social significance, focusing exclusively on the individual singers. To be sure, the gospel catalogue contains a treasure trove of powerful performances, but without the context to situate the endless stream of artists that the film throws at us, it becomes difficult to understand both the music’s undeniable, if ill-defined, import and the progression of the art form that the movie seems to want to trace. But McGlynn’s most embarrassing maneuver is to offer, late in the film, the barest attempts at appropriating an outside context. While he cuts to one expert opining briefly on what he considers the failure of the ‘60s, exemplified by the late-decade assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., McGlynn concludes his film with archival footage of that worthy coupled with Barack Obama’s acceptance speech and some perfunctory commentary about how far black people have come. One is left wondering what exactly the now moldy “anything is possible” sentiments of our 44th president have to do with a music whose history and cultural meaning we’ve just spent the last two hours not learning nearly enough about.