Thursday, March 10, 2011

Say Amen, Somebody

 When Willie Mae Ford Smith sings about goin' to Canaanland, you know there's no mere show business happening, no sir. Even though she and Tommy Dorsey and several of the gospel singers featured in the joyous 1982 documentary SAY AMEN, SOMEBODY routinely get up in front of packed congregations and even concert halls, they're singing to their Lord, to an audience of One. You can see it in their faces; it's not about them. Director George T. Nierenberg really brings that across as he follows his subjects around their towns and churches and in their homes, even as they sing in their backyards. They're on a mission, and their method is through thundering refrains with closed eyes and hands toward the sky.

There's no beating around the bush with this review. You need to see this movie. Even if you don't share the spiritual convictions of these singers as they proclaim the freedom they've found in their faith (my favorite: the hefty O'Neal Twins singing "Jesus Dropped the Charges"), you will be inspired by these singers' devotion. Often, it is lifelong. Smith, Dorsey, Sallie Martin, and others had been at it for decades; younger folks like Zella Jackson Price are no less passionate (her "I'm His Child", complete with back-up choir is rousing).

The gospel music here, by the way, is good old fashioned, raw, undiluted praise. No studio slickery or post-production gloss to be heard. Even if the soundtrack is at times not completely in sync with the visual, we still get the message. And the music we hear performed in this movie is in churches where folks ain't worried that the service is running long. It's so, inspiring.

I'll bet that you'll also be inspired by the energy of this film. Not just the music sequences. The interviews with family, the candid stories of the toll of touring has on said families, the recalled memories, it's all pieced together so compellingly by Nierenberg. One film editor termed the dialogue between songs in a given film (doc or fiction) as "shoe leather", but here those bridges illuminate the subjects, give background and evidence to their dedication to service to the Lord. No filler. I particularly enjoyed Smith's conversation in her grandson's pick-up truck, speaking of Bible stories. She doesn't mince words. Dorsey, an elder statesman, is mellower, reflective, but still has a fire in his gut. We look at his irises as if peering through transparent windows, seeing into a long, well-lived life.

I especially loved the keen eye of the director in SAY AMEN, SOMEBODY. He captures not only the dynamic praises but also the wonderful, unscripted or prompted behavior in the peripheries of the frame, like that little girl gazing with wonder and astonishment at her parents during a spontaneous church pew stand up of "We're Blessed". It's a scene you will see in a real Pentacostal church (no inhibitions of raised hands there). I imagined her growing up immersed in this atmosphere, likely sharing her progenitors' enthusiasm. Other family members seen in this film may not be so devoted, as one drags on a cigarette and even mildly blaspehemes as he recounts memories, but still admires the spirit when he sees it. Likewise, I would venture to guess that even the heathens will admire this picture. Its power is too much to resist.
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