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Documentary Review: ‘Rejoice and Shout’

June 17, 2011
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I’m not the biggest fan of gospel music. Actually, I’m not really a fan at all, so I’m not the target audience for Rejoice and Shout, but you don’t have to be once you’ve heard the little black girl in the opening scene belt out a killer rendition of “Amazing Grace.” And I can’t stand “Amazing Grace.” Rejoice has its show-stopping moments—a 1902 recording from one of the first gospel groups, named “The Dinwiddie Colored Quartet”; a gospel-off between two groups; the sad history of Clara Ward and her domineering mother—but they’re too scarce to foster a sustained interest.

And that’s largely the movie. I can’t quite recommend it save for gospel fans, but I can’t really write it off either. Director Don McGlynn constructs something squarely aimed at fans but occasionally offers moments that will appeal to anyone.

It’s nice enough, and, in bits and pieces—the evolution of gospel is interesting, particularly when the interviewees discuss how the blend of African music with Christian hymnals created the genre, or some of the stories of the gospel singers themselves are intriguing, however the singular focus is on the music, and these are simply compelling asides. McGlynn also chooses to play many of the songs in their entirety, which, at five-to-seven-plus minutes in length, combined with 200+ years of history, is pleasant at first but drags after the first hour, and even more so when you realize that there’s another hour to go.

Rejoice also may have benefitted from more interviewees, of which there are three to whom the film constantly returns, with brief (and rather informed appearances) by Smokey Robinson, who, in one of the documentary’s most uplifting scenes, gives a surprising defense of Christian rap, “Any way they can get the Word of the Lord out is good.” Two other gospel historians provide informative commentary, but the third is kind of joke. Several times throughout the film her knowledge amounts to “Oh, they were just awesome.”

It plays like a television documentary, in that it sticks to the standard talking-head format and doesn’t strive for anything but listing off the more influential names, summarizing their strengths and merits, and moving on. Again, some of the songs are wonders to behold, but just as many go on a bit too long.

Rating: 2.5/5

Rejoice and Shout is rated PG. Directed by Don McGlynn. Starring Smokey Robinson, Willa Ward, and Mavis Staples.

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