In the first few minutes of the marvelous new documentary Rejoice and Shout, Pastor — and renowned Gospel-music artist — Andraé Crouch gets to the heart of the matter: “If we really heard the voice of God, we would be reduced to juice. The vibration of His voice would reduce us to liquid. . . . So He has to use other people to speak His word.” This is a truth that covers a lot of territory: the preaching of the Gospel through sermons; the sacramental life of the various Churches; and the way people minister to one another in their daily lives, exercising the universal priesthood of all believers. In Rejoice and Shout, the focus is on one particularly dynamic form of mediation: the African-American tradition of Gospel music, from the old spirituals to the present day.
Director Don McGlynn has packed an amazing amount of material into the film’s two hours, resulting in a judicious and satisfying mix of Gospel performances from many eras, and a narrative arc that encompasses many of the form’s subgenres. The film does justice to its subject — it can certainly stand as a “Gospel 101” primer — but also communicates something of the joy of the music itself. This is largely because the narration and interview clips are not obtrusive; they provide just enough information to push the story along, but finally let the music itself do the talking. And talk it does, loud and clear: It is a rare person who will not be moved by any of the material performed in this movie. (In my own case, the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ “Oh Happy Day” — a massive global hit back when I was a boy, four decades ago — still chokes me up as much as it ever did. Here’s one performance of it from 1969. And check out some of the comments below it, on YouTube: “I’m muslim and will always be. But this song makes me so happy.” I was just finishing high school and knew I was going to Viet-Nam when this song was played on top 40 and rock stations. . I’m not a particularly religious person, but this song always touches my soul and cheers me up when ever I hear it.” “This is a great song. You must really be made of granite if you don’t get goosebumps, even if you aren’t a churchgoer.” Yes, it’s that kind of song.)
Rejoice and Shout opens at the Film Forum in New York today; details of its subsequent opening in other cities can be found here.