Say Amen, Somebody

George T. Nierenberg's entertaining 1980 documentary on gospel music features performances by and interviews with some remarkable primary sources: Thomas A. Dorsey, the inventor of the style; Willie Mae Ford Smith, its leading practitioner in the 30s and 40s; and the Barrett Sisters, a trio hitting their prime. The film escapes the sanctimoniousness endemic to so many movies of this type by its inclusion of funny, messy domestic scenes that touch on the conflicts of evangelism and entertainment, domesticity and show-business success, that possess these highly professional amateurs. When Nierenberg downplays the potentially alienating religious fanaticism that defines the movement, he is being crafty and a little dishonest; his film sacrifices reportage to likability, but it is very likable indeed. 100 min.

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