Saturday, May 28, 2011

Smart music docs debut: THIS TIME on DVD & iTunes, REJOICE AND SHOUT in theaters

God -- bless her/him/it --  is left, right and center in REJOICE AND SHOUT, the new documentary directed by Don McGlynn and produced by Joe Lauro that covers what seems like the entire history of gospel music in America. The film begins as a little girl with big voice (part of The Selvy Family Singers) belts out Amazing Grace. This is followed with various gospel singers giving thanks and leading us into in the story of gospel and the folk who, over more than two centuries, kept it going. For atheists/agnostics (like TrustMovies) and others who have difficulty believing -- not so much in some higher power but in the puny and tiresome reasons our fellow humans give for demanding this belief and organized religion's use of power to coerce us into it -- the constant connections to god and church may put off some viewers.

The music, however -- as well as enormous breadth of gospel history covered in the film -- should draw nearly everybody in. From old-timers such as (the now-deceased) Jackie Verdell and Brother Joe May through Mahalia Jackson (at left) to the The Blind Boys of Mississippi (and Alabama, shown below), the number of gospel performers here is amazing. Even better, the moviemakers don't just give us a smattering of each one's sound. In most cases we get to see and hear enough of the performance to understand -- with the help of several experts -- exactly what each contributed to the form.  (Did you know, a propos those Blind Boys, that schools for the blind, in the early part of the century past, specialized in musical education? I didn't, until this film)

We travel through The Great Depression and the migrations of Blacks from the South to the North, and we meet Thomas A. Dorsey, (no, not Tommy Dorsey) who managed to compose and play dirty blues songs in clubs while writing church songs at the same time (some 40 of these are now gospel standards, we're told). Then there's Sister Rosetta Tharpe (below), who sounds like quite a gal. Great fun to watch and hear, and seemingly pretty hip for her day, we see her singing a bang-up job of Lonesome Road, as some scantily-clad chorus girls dance for the camera. (Yes, gospel was expanding its reach, even then....)

Interestingly enough, as we leave the past (that's an early photo of The Staple Singers, below) and head into the present, the singing, as well as the performers, grow more tedious and tiresome. Gospel's roots have spread out to include, if not exactly welcome, everything from rhythm-and-blues to disco and digital gospel. And so, to my ear and eye, the movie saves, in an ironic move, its worst for the last. Excessive wailing on the part of today's singers is not, I think, a particularly good thing. Near the finale, our own President Obama makes an appearance (with his acceptance speech from the night he won his election). "Tonight is your answer," he tells us. Indeed. After selling us out to Wall Street and caving in to power and money time and again, he has certainly shown us the way. And I would guess that god is right there with him, every step of it. At least the movie has the decency and grace to end with Martin Luther King -- still the Black benchmark for talking the talk and walking the walk.

Rejoice and Shout (115 minutes, from Magnolia Pictures) opens this Friday June 3, for a two-week run at New York City's Film Forum. Click here for screening times there, and then click here for upcoming playdates in theaters across the U.S.


Interestingly enough, a film I enjoyed even more than the above is a new one I'd never even heard of until its attentive PR agency sent me a copy.  THIS TIME is a musical documentary that tracks six per-formers (three of these make up a single musical group) over a time in which they try to make good (or, in a couple of cases -- the older ones -- make a comeback). The performers have to fight apathy (their own and others'), age (in some cases), and the music industry itself, and if the road is rocky, they are, in general, so full of life, energy and good will, that we follow along.

The first of these is a musical trio The Sweet Inspirations (shown above), women who sang back-up for the best -- from Elvis to Aretha, Jimi, Dionne, Dusty Springfield and Burt Bacharach, to name a few. Now they're determined, with the help of producer/composer Peitor Angell, to sing and record again. They're very good, too, and they're joined by a newcomer who's also very good. What's to stand in their way?  You'll be amazed....

Angell is also working with another comeback queen, Pat Hodges (above), whose enormous voice is as amazing as her enormous girth is a problem. A child star at 15, she's been through a lot, but it looks like she might be on track to hit it big again.

We watch her work with Angell (shown at right), a very photogenic and (from the sound of things) talented composer, but some of her self-destructive tendencies come to the fore as the film lengthens. And as much as Angell works toward Hodges' success, he's also working for his own, as he is one of our six talents, though he tends to be remain behind the scenes.

Our final performer is a young man (well, not so young anymore; he's nearly 40), Bobby Belfry, who has been playing the cabaret circuit for years, hoping for that breakout opportunity. Bobby's cute, full of energy and positive vibes, and he's clearly talented. But from what we see here -- my take, at least -- perhaps not quite talented enough to be called first rank.(He gets the nice title song for the film, however -- one which he both wrote and sings.)  We watch him at work at a Manhattan bar, and then performing at the Duplex and finally at Feinstein's at the Regency -- his biggest gig so far.

Director/editor/cinematograher/co-producer Victor Mignatti (above) (Broadway Damage) does an excellent job of weaving these stories together. Sometimes the music from one person/group melds into the next, working beautifully to make our performers seem somehow joined. Mignatti handles each person's history well, too, showing us how the past is never quite over. By the end of this most interesting movie -- which reminded me of the recent Earthwork in how it captures unsung artists at work -- you'll be left with a strong sense of these disparate performers' accomplish-ments and frustrations. Though th movie is titled This Time, I'm afraid that you -- and they -- will be thinking more along the lines of Next Time.

Out on DVD this Tuesday, May 31, the film can also be downloaded via iTunes.

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