The limitations of the gospel music overview documentary Rejoice & Shout are hinted at minutes into the film, when the camera appreciatively captures a young girl — maybe 6 or 7 years old — belting out a version of "Amazing Grace." It's a song of experience and regret beyond the ken of a young child, and the performance is all preening, uncomprehending melisma. The celebratory placement of this klllclip is revealing of a film rooted in distanced, unexamined appreciation.
Rejoice & Shout is disappointingly unimaginative formally and unadventurous intellectually, amounting, for the bulk of its nearly two-hour running time, to a chronological display of gospel icons, each captured with a bit of archival footage and surrounded by a selection of talking-head commentary. Among the subjects interviewed, along with a trio of genre historians, are performers such as soul-identified stars Mavis Staples and Smokey Robinson, veteran gospel titans Ira Tucker of the Dixie Hummingbirds, and Wila Ward, sister of Clara, and modern movers within the gospel world, particularly Memphian Darrel Petties.
The result is a handsome video scrapbook for genre devotees and a dutiful, great-sounding primer for novices, but not a particularly dynamic or provocative treatment of a grand subject. Rejoice & Shout oddly skimps on exploring the thin line between gospel and soul — how artists such as Ray Charles and Sam Cooke created the latter by secularizing the former — and eschews interesting — and no-doubt present — conflict at most turns.
Rejoice & Shout works best, unsurprisingly, when it simply puts the music on display, reveling in tremendous archival footage: an intense, swaggering back-and-forth between the unknown-to-me duo of Jackie Verdell and Brother Joe May; an early performance by Shirley Caesar with the Caravans; segments on the guitar-wielding Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the falsetto-wielding Claude Jeter; and a leap to color via the Edwin Hawkins Singers' enormous "Oh Happy Day."
But in presenting a straight journey from such epochal figures as Mahalia Jackson and the Soul Stirrers to such comparatively mundane modern figures as Kirk Franklin and Yolanda Adams, Rejoice & Shout unintentionally pays witness to a cultural diminution unavoidable for any conservative, mid-century roots-music form: blues, blues-based rock, and country music (in a slightly different way) would all suffer from a similar past-to-present display.
Rejoice & Shout has Memphis-related content past and present that makes it of wider interest locally. But this underachieving film is worthwhile more for the inherent attraction of its subject matter than for what it does with it.