Even godless heathens will get a lot out of Rejoice & Shout, a fairly epic survey of gospel music from its infancy into its still mostly ignored present. Longtime music documentarian Don McGlynn and his extremely well-informed interviewees reach all the way back to the plantation spirituals, arguing that blues, rock, country and hip hop have origins in music meant to praise a higher power.
More importantly, it has range. Spirituals quickly evolved into music that even today sounds suspiciously secular; ignore a couple certain words and it’s accessible to all. McGlynn digs up records from the turn-of-the-century where gospel sounds like barbershop, with one major distinction (beyond the g-word angle): Each member of the quartet has a distinctive voice, creating a sense of unity and individualism simultaneously. The genre evolved again in the 20s, when Thomas A. Dorsey—not, mind, big band leader Tommy Dorsey—would divvy his time between filthy blues shacks and churches, creating a catchy fusion sound.
Gospel at its best, the film tacitly argues, is mainstream and plays to a deeper instinct than mere faith. The Staple Singers, it reveals, didn’t even realize the music they had learned had been gospel until they were masters at it. Elsewhere, crossover star Mahalia Jackson sounds like (OK, better than) every powerhouse diva scoring big on American Idol, the Dixie Hummingbirds were a proto-Temptations, complete with dance routines, and Claude Jeter’s falsetto begat Al Green (himself a secular megastar who forsook killer record sales to hide away in a full-on religious career).
Even with more than 100 years and dozens of worthy artists to cover, McGlynn doesn’t rush through history, even allowing clips to play out in their entirety—a practice that balloons the running time to nearly two hours. (As does a fair amount of peddling for Christianity, but proselytizing is to be expected.) Religious services, baptisms, stage shows, even the Norfolk Jubilee Quartet crooning “Do You Call That Religion?” while sitting atop shells convincingly argue for gospel as versatile and toe-tapping—the root of all (or most) popular music, even as it’s forever marginalized in its purest form.