Director Don McGlynn, of the new documentary on Gospel music, Rejoice and Shout, is known for biographical documentaries Louis Prima: The Wildest and Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog, among many others. When Eamonn Bowles of Magnolia Pictures asked him to make a documentary on Gospel music, just when the director himself was considering a film on the subject, McGlynn got what all directors dream of: financing. As any independent filmmaker can tell you, finding financing is the hardest part of making a movie. With that hurtle covered, McGlynn could concentrate on the biggest challenge of the film, not telling just one story, as much of his past work had done, but telling the multiple stories that make up the history of American Gospel music.
The director also has major technical challenges on such an ambitious project. Eighty-five percent of the footage used in the film was culled from decades of collecting by producer Joe Lauro. As would be expected from a project that spans 200 years, the clips came in a multitude of formats, many in need of restoration.
Perhaps the biggest find is the experimental sound-on-film footage of the Utica Quartet that was shot in 1922, five years before The Jazz Singer. Also included in the documentary was an audio performance from the Virginia-based Dinwidde Colored Quartet. This rare 1902 recording for the Victor Talking Machine Company was the first African-American religious record, made almost 20-years before any African-American jazz or blues records.
16mm newsreel segments from 1928 through the 1930s included performances by The Golden Gate Quartet, an extremely popular a capella Jubilee group with a widely-heard CBS radio show. They were also the first African Americans to perform at the White House for President Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s 1941 inauguration. Other popular artists of the era included Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who stood out because it was unusual for a woman to be a preacher and a guitarist, and Mahalia Jackson, probably the greatest gospel singer of all time.
Kinescopes and video were used from the television era. Gospel groups of the 1950s and 1960s included The Staple Singers, who, during the early days of the Civil Rights movement, incorporated freedom songs as well as Bob Dylan songs into their repertoire.
Once video became the prominent medium, the sound improved significantly. And just as the technology evolved with the times, the style of Gospel Music also evolved.
Prominent in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, the Edwin Hawkins Singers crossed over into the world of pop music with their worldwide hit, “Oh Happy Day.” Currently, the Selvey Family sings in the great Gospel tradition, but also incorporate Hip Hop sounds into their musical accompaniment.
In a documentary about music, the crucial element is sound. All clips were meticulously restored both aurally and visually. “I never dreamed of doing this before, but I will from now on! You can take a great old clip and run it through a program that knows what the characteristics of an old 35mm optical soundtrack is, and the program will remove the flaws of that old system,” explained McGlynn. “I had been listening to some clips for years, and after the process, I could hear things I never heard before, like the crowd in the room. We could then separate that crowd, and put it in the surrounds. In the old days, even if you just tried to spread mono to stereo, it would sound worse. But now, we could separate the bass singer from the tenor and place them where you saw them on screen, and we could heighten the experience without damaging it.”
“I’m indebted to my sound man, Thomas Martin,” said McGlynn, “We kept talking about how to make the material as good and clear as possible, which took almost a month. And then during the mix, giving it that thread of continuity when you see the film.”
The film achieves added visual style by the careful use of split screens. McGlynn came up with the idea for the split screen shots from the movies of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, a period when the technique was popular. He used the technique to help him edit several clips that had limited footage. “That started with the Swan Silvertones, because there were two cameras, and one ran out before the end of the song,” shares McGlynn. “So I thought I have to make this work because I love this clip so much. The Dixie Hummingbirds actually had two cameras, while the Mahalia Jackson clip was the only one that had just one angle. The technique added interest, if used sparingly.”
McGlynn credited his editor with not only dealing with the old formats, but also the changing technologies during the course of the edit. “My editor, Frank Axelson, was absolutely tireless. We had at least six different formats of HD alone,” said McGlynn. “We started shooting in 2007 when there wasn’t even a standard for television yet, so it kept changing and he kept adapting. He was dealing with cards, dealing with tapes, all the while dealing with NTSC and PAL, because we were finishing in Europe. He was tireless in trying to make the clips look good, doing things to sharpen the image.”
McGlynn sums up his experience of making the documentary, “I learned when I was in film school that any person on the crew that wants to help make the film good, they are your ally, and they are contributing so much. And any director that doesn’t listen to the sound man, or production manager or anyone is an idiot!”