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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Rejoice and Shout' an off-key look at the history of gospel music

Special Photo: Magnolia. Singer Mavis Staples provides a soundbite in the documentary "Rejoice and Shout."

Special Photo: Magnolia. Singer Mavis Staples provides a soundbite in the documentary "Rejoice and Shout."

Rejoice and Shout (PG)

2 stars out of 4

At the risk of reworking the most obvious of clichés, “Rejoice and Shout” — a documentary about the history of gospel music — preaches solely to its choir. Providing the foundation for rock, blues, country, jazz, hip-hop and dozens of other musical subgenres, gospel is the oldest American-based musical idiom and one far more deserving of the treatment it gets here.

What’s really needed here is akin to what Ken Burns did with the 10-part “Jazz.” Although it might sound the same to those who don’t care for it, gospel is much more than just “religious music” and comes with many variations and intricacies. Distilling that into a 90-minute movie is admittedly a tall order and one that director Don McGlynn tried to fill.

By touching so briefly on myriad of historical events and notable performances, McGlynn delivers what is basically a CliffsNotes movie. There’s just enough included to whet the audience’s appetite or rope in a few new converts — which may be the point. If McGylnn had lingered too long on one aspect or another, he’d surely raise the ire of gospel purists, many of whom have already voiced considerable displeasure regarding his shorthand approach.

However fragmented and uneven the film is, it still has its fair share of bright spots. There are roughly a dozen talking heads who add insight and opinion but most of them say little, are redundant or simply are not ideal candidates to be speaking on camera. The only really worthwhile sound bites come courtesy of Motown legend Smokey Robinson, singer Mavis Staples and Andrae Crouch, one of the most commercially successful gospel artists of all time and an ordained minister.

After spending far too much time on too many marginal vintage acts with similar origins and sounds, the film starts to pick up moderate steam with everything that has happened since the mid ’50s. Segments dedicated to the Rev. James Cleveland, Mahalia Jackson and Rosetta Tharpe are truncated but satisfying. The best of lot is a lengthy profile on the Staple Singers. Here McGlynn discusses their Chicago roots and subsequent transition into Memphis soul and crossover pop and it is the only portion of the movie to make such a vital connection.

As with many movies that focus on facets of black history often do whether warranted or not, “Rejoice and Shout” includes many of the same stock news reels featuring Martin Luther King Jr. Although a man of the cloth and masterful orator, King was neither a musician nor a singer and had little or nothing to do with gospel music. This is minor when compared to what McGlynn does for his finale.

Without giving too much away, McGlynn includes footage of another famous black American who has less of a connection to gospel than King and it all comes off as supremely tacky, opportunistic and frivolous. Whatever good will McGlynn was aiming for and largely secured with the rest of his film is essentially wiped away with this fawning, arrogant and amateurish move. (Magnolia)