Those who enjoy gospel music strictly as a genre—as opposed to as a form of worship—may be put off by the first 10 minutes of Don McGlynn’s documentary Rejoice And Shout. With this film, McGlynn attempts to cover the intertwined history of gospel and the African-American experience, from slavery through the civil-rights movement and beyond. But Rejoice And Shout doesn’t start out in historical mode. It begins with one interview subject after another testifying to the power of God, and explaining how music affirms their faith. It’s hard to tell whether this opening salvo of spirituality expresses McGlynn’s personal feelings, or if it’s merely emblematic of the film’s overall shapelessness.
Rejoice And Shout moves roughly chronologically through history, with insights and anecdotes from veteran musicians and scholars. It’s all loosely assembled, with less of an eye toward storytelling and more of a rambling “and then Mahalia Jackson came along” approach. The saving grace for McGlynn (so to speak) is that so many talented and complex figures populate the gospel world. Rejoice And Shout’s talking heads discuss Thomas A. Dorsey, who played raunchy songs in roadhouses on Saturday nights and sacred songs in churches on Sunday mornings; Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a self-taught guitarist whose records sold in the millions; The Dixie Hummingbirds, whose innovative arrangements influenced Motown vocal groups; The Staples Singers, whose embrace of folk music made them popular during the civil-rights movement; and more.
Some potentially fascinating discussions get shortchanged in Rejoice And Shout, including the differences in worship and music in white and black churches, and the effect of new technology on the gospel sound. Both topics are touched on, but only briefly, and are handled fairly summarily by interviewee Smokey Robinson, who says that however people want to praise the Lord is okay by him. The main reason to see the film is to see archival footage of ecstatic congregations experiencing the power of live performances, delivered with unfettered abandon. The smartest move that McGlynn makes in Rejoice And Shout is to let those old performances run on at length. That’s a much better way to catch the Holy Spirit than just listening to people talk about it.