Black gospel music has been so much a vital backdrop in 20th century American culture that one might well feel like it's been around forever. In fact, it's a relatively recent phenomenon, only about 20 years older than the rock 'n' roll it would help inspire and not a note less passionate,
as demonstrated in this uplifting, heart- and soulfelt documentary.
Filmmaker George Nierenberg was fortunate to capture on film some of the venerable founders of gospel while they were still active. Professor Thomas Andrew Dorsey (1899-1993) and "Mother" Willie Mae Ford Smith (1904-1994) are shown arriving in St. Louis for a gospel-music convention. Between them,
Dorsey and Smith have been spreading God's Word through song for about 120 years. Dorsey was a successful jazz pianist in the 1920s who, after a religious conversion, began combining traditional church hymns with the uptempo rhythms of jazz and blues. Modern viewers may be struck by the
recollection that gospel was considered scandalous and offensive when it initially appeared. "I've been thrown out of some of the best churches," said Dorsey, who had to organize the first gospel-choir convention in the 1930s to give the music's adherents proper instruction and the freedom to
practice. The first man to publish gospel music, Dorsey describes how grief at the deaths of his wife and child inspired "Precious Lord," one of his most popular hymns. Sallie Martin (1895-1988), the first bona fide gospel music star, recalls the early years of touring with Dorsey and selling
copies of his sheet music to support themselves.
But sell it did, and later gospel singers--like twin vocalists Edward and Edgar O'Neal--bemoan the commercialization of the art form, and the phenomenon of gospel-singing contests for cash prizes (like the one presented, without irony, at the climax of 1993's SISTER ACT 2: BACK IN THE HABIT).
Gospel, they assert, is about saving souls and spreading the Word, not show business. The latest St. Louis gospel convention is as exhuberant and emotional as any secular concert, as the blend of sermons and music brings the crowds to their feet.
SAY AMEN SOMEBODY is vibrant and alive, eschewing dry documentary devices like subject identification titles and the omniscient narrator; these people tell their own stories, eloquently and with just as much feeling as when they burst into song. There's surprisingly little reliance on stock
footage and vintage stills to walk the viewer through gospel history, which is just as well, even if a few gossipy details (like an early split between Dorsey and Sallie Martin, and a music-copyright lawsuit mentioned in an old newspaper clip) get lost in the process. White folks, miraculously,
escape bashing as the filmmakers stay away from the expected scholarly discourse on African-American Christianity and its roots in slave culture. What does emerge from the background is an undertone of feminism, with the minister-husband of singer Delois Barrett Campbell admitting that he resents
her celebrity. Willie Mae Ford Smith, meanwhile, is genuinely pained when she learns, on camera, that her adult grandson disapproves of women preachers. "If God could make a jackass talk, why can't he make a woman preach?" she asks, an argument that fails to sway him. But the tuneful finale is
all-embracing and warm enough to melt the most cynical sinner's heart. Songs include "Jesus Dropped the Charges" (Edward and Edgar O'Neal); "He Chose Me" (James Cleveland); "What Manner of Man" (Roman Holmes); "Take My Hand" "Precious Lord" "When I've Done My Best" "If You See My Saviour" "Never
Turn Back" "Singing in My Soul" "Let's Go Back to God" (Thomas A. Dorsey).
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