Near the beginning of the documentary Rejoice & Shout, Andraé Crouch says, with no shortage of conviction, “If we really heard the voice of God, we would be reduced to juice. The vibration of his voice would reduce us to liquid. So He has to use other people to spread his word.” Crouch knows quite a bit about this kind of calling -- he was one of the biggest stars of gospel music in the 1970s and '80s, and is now the pastor of his own church in San Fernando, CA. For Crouch, as for the many other artists profiled in this film, communicating the word of the Lord is the first and most important thing when they discuss their music. However, it's not the only matter of importance, and director Don McGlynn uses Rejoice & Shout as a forum to examine the history of gospel music on several levels at once: as a means of worship, as an art form, as a pillar of African-American culture, as an instrument of social change, and much more. Rejoice & Shout is an ambitious effort to tell the full story of one of America's most influential and culturally significant musical forms, and what it has to say about the music is nearly as fascinating as the music itself -- and given the artists who appear here, that's a strong statement.
Rejoice & Shout begins with a number of musicians of note -- Crouch, Mavis Staples, Smokey Robinson, and many others -- talking about the importance of faith in their lives, and how the Holy Spirit guides and defines their music. It's after McGlynn's subjects attest to the importance of the Lord in their lives and work that he moves on to the story of how gospel music grew and evolved in tandem with the African-American church in the United States. While slave owners (and later wealthy businessmen) may have encouraged the black men and women working under them to embrace Christianity, those slaves/workers did so in their own fashion, adding their own cultural traditions to Eurocentric forms of worship, and the music they performed in church followed a similar path. For many African-Americans, faith represented freedom in many respects -- church was a place where they could be themselves, away from legal and economic repression for a few hours, and where their aspirations could be given free reign. Gospel music was also heavy with symbolism that could work two ways -- the frequent references of passing over the river to salvation spoke to people eager to flee slavery into freedom, and later to those hoping to escape the overriding racism of the Jim Crow South for greater opportunities in the North. As director McGlynn charts the political and cultural changes of the United States through the 20th century, he also demonstrates how gospel music reacted to (and sometimes influenced) those changes, from America's economic struggle during the Depression through the Second World War and into the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and '60s, as well as the political tumult that defined the late '60s and early '70s.
McGlynn does a good job of examining the political and social aspects of gospel music in African-American culture, but what really gives this film life is the music and the people who made it. McGlynn has included some fascinating interviews with a handful of gospel legends, including Willa Ward of the Clara Ward Singers, Mavis Staples of the Staple Singers, Ira Tucker of the Dixie Hummingbirds, and Marie Knight, a colleague of Sister Rosetta Tharpe who in particular has strong and often entertaining opinions about nearly every artist of consequence from gospel's formative era. McGlynn and his interview subjects -- who include Anthony Heilbut and Bill Carpenter, two noted authors of books on gospel's history -- also chart the parallel growth of gospel, blues, and jazz, and how the styles often informed one another while still staying separate and distinct (oddly, no one mentions Ray Charles, who was widely praised and condemned in his heyday for the strong gospel influence in his music). McGlynn and producer Joe Lauro have assembled a treasure trove of filmed performances by important gospel acts, and for all the film's enlightened talk, nothing here is more moving than seeing and hearing Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Swan Silvertones, the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Rev. James Cleveland, Darrel Petties, and many others bringing their music to life, giving voice to the spirit of the Lord. Rejoice & Shout is a well-crafted and engrossing history of gospel music, what it means, and how it became what it is today, but just as important as sharing the faith behind the music, this film includes plenty of music that gives that faith body, depth, and force. Even those who don't share the spiritual outlook of these artists are still likely be moved by their music and the heartfelt passion with which they perform; anyone who believes the old saw that the Devil has all the good music clearly hasn't seen Rejoice & Shout.