The Swan Silvertones first performed "Only Believe" about seventy years ago, singing, "All things are possible, if you only believe." And so many years later, the haunting tune still moves Don McGlynn. It is one of the documentarian's favorite hymns from his newest film Rejoice and Shout, which explores the weighty topic of gospel music.
The filmmaker usually focuses his lens on only one musician's life and works. (His previous projects include documentaries on Howlin' Wolf, Charles Mingus, and Glenn Miller.) But for this project, McGlynn took on an entire genre of a music. In his words, Rejoice and Shout looks at "200 years of African-American Christian experience."
Certainly, this film is about the songs, and includes rare, wonderful footage and interviews with singers like Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke, The Staple Singers, and The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. But it also is about the political and spiritual journey of a people that has long expressed its collective history through music and performance, both in church and on secular stages.
As an Irish-American Catholic from Minnesota, McGlynn grew up with one-hour Catholic masses. So, as he was making Rejoice and Shout, it was a shock to discover that gospel-filled Christian services require a full day's devotion. "Which sounded painful to me when I first heard it," he admits. But after actually experiencing a long afternoon of worship, McGlynn began to understand that it was also about the joy of friends, food, and community.
In many ways, the filmmaker's exploration of this influential musical genre ended up being a spiritual journey. And even though he'd never met R&B legend Smokey Robinson, the filmmaker was surprised to find that, philosophically speaking, "almost everything Smokey Robinson said in the movie is exactly how I feel about those same issues." Of his interviews with Robinson, McGlynn says, "He is the symbol of what I consider personal about this film."
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Rejoice and Shout not only created unlikely connections for those involved with the film, it also crosses cultural lines and carefully approaches the unique history of African Americans, the Holy Spirit, and beautiful voices raised up in praise.