Rejoice & Shout begins with a voice belting "Amazing Grace" with the purity of a child and the depth of a seasoned performer. The voice belongs to a little girl sitting in a church pew surrounded by her family, carrying on a musical tradition centuries old. As one of the girl's gospel music forebears says, "Gospel music is what kept us going, gave us strength."
Rejoice & Shout tells the jubilant history of black gospel music, from the slaves who adapted the hymns they heard in church, to the freedom singers in the 1960s and the hip-hop singers of today. It interlaces historical analysis with interviews from the greats-Smokey Robinson, Mavis Staples, Ira Tucker, and Marie Knight. The Ward Singers croon a version of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" that swings from yearning to rejoicing. Claude Jeter's clear falsetto pipes silky harmonies with the Swan Silvertones.
The film escapes hagiography by peopling the history with real people, not cardboard cutouts of haloed saints. There is a stage mother who sabotages her daughter's pop ambitions, a savvy musician who writes racy songs for nightclubs and gospel songs for church, and a singer who makes women swoon from a feeling less pure than when they're slain by the Holy Ghost.
The documentary provokes thought about the nature of Christian art's relationship to the world, as it tells the story of a Christian musical genre that drew from but also shaped the popular music of its time. The artists nurtured a genre unique and faith-filled, rooted in an ethnic subculture but crossing over in a way that transcended race and even religion.
The lead singer of the Blind Boys of Mississippi said if you ask him how he is this day-not this week or year but this day-he replies, "I'm leaning on Jesus." The gospel songs began with the slaves singing to lighten their everyday load, just as modern gospel writer Andraé Crouch does when says his songs come not from a heavenly voice but "normal living": "He just wants to be part of it."