Watch: ‘Say Amen, Somebody’ (Criterion Channel)

02 June 2021 | James Porteous | Clipper Media

I remember watching a rather poor VHS copy of ‘Say Amen, Somebody’ sometime in the late 1980s, I guess.

By that point in my music exploration I was quite familiar with The Golden Gate Singers, The Pilgrim Travelers and Dorothy Love Coates and so many others but Say Amen, Somebody was a true revelation.

I thought about the film every now and again but, unlike vinyl, it is unlikely VHS will ever make a sentimental comeback. But no matter, I don’t recall hearing mention of the film until it showed up this month on the excellent Criterion Channel.

And it turns out that the film has been beautifully restored. It was originally ‘filmed in standard 4:3 aspect ratio but when restored, the aspect ratio became 16:9, making the visuals cleaner and brighter, and easier to see on televisions. The audio was also enhanced to Dolby surround sound 5.1.’

In hindsight, having seen the beauty of this film again after so many years, I have come to realize that this documentary is in fact the ‘gospel’ version of  D.A. Pennebakers Don’t Look Back.

DA Pennebaker (in the hat) with Bob Dylan, left, filming Don’t Look Back, 1965. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives

The film is not just ‘about’ gospel music any more than the former was just ‘about’ Dylan.

It is more like a musical and visual encyclopedia of a time when ‘the arts’ and religion and all the rest were at the forefront of so many lives, not just in the West, but all over the world.

The director, George Nierenberg, has stated ‘that he continues to receive comments from black Americans who have seen the film multiple times, and he is taken aback when they express how much it means to them. At the time of the film’s release, he was unaware of its significance, and had no idea of its “true meaning.’

And so it remains, I am sure. It is almost impossible to put your finger on exactly how or why this film so resonates.

The best I can come up with is that it provides us, perhaps the outsiders, with a personal glimpse into a fully formed world and community that effortlessly revolves around truths so self-evident and passionate that they can be articulated with absolute confidence and there is never, ever, a need to explain or justify the meaning. It just is.

We have lost that ability to be just is, I think. We find ourselves in an absurd 3D version of a Dali painting, where the things we see and hear look the same but have become so perverted by external influences that we now need ‘fact-checkers to check the facts of the original fact-checker.

And to be honest, we can cry and moan about ‘losing’ those guideposts over the past year but in truth, we lost those fundamental truths long before the pandemic.

In fact, the absence of things other than internal musings and largely invented external threats over the past 20 years have helped facilitate the past 14 months of isolation.

There is a line in this movie where Mr Dorsey says something along the lines of ‘if you can’t find God in your life or at your door you have to just go back out and start all over again.’

That is where we find ourselves now, standing at that closed door, charged with the task of taking back and confronting and even accepting the joy and beauty and genuine heartbreak of real life.

Or to quote another gospel song, ‘you can go to college and you can go to school, but if you ain’t found Jesus you’re an educated fool.’

It is time to find Jesus, no matter what form that might take.

James Porteous | Clipper Media

Thomas A. Dorsey was one of the gospel pioneers profiled in George Nierenberg’s Say Amen, Somebody. The documentary was originally released in 1982, and has been remastered and re-released.
Courtesy Milestone Films

‘Say Amen, Somebody’ Restoration Unveils The Wonder Of The Gospel Pioneers


Say Amen, Somebody, a documentary about the men and women who pioneered African American gospel music, was widely praised upon its release in 1982; the late Roger Ebert called it “One of the most joyful movies I’ve ever seen.” But it hasn’t been seen in theaters in nearly 30 years. Now George T. Nierenberg’s film has been restored and re-released to theaters and DVD.

At the time, Nierenberg was looking for a follow-up to his award-winning 1979 tap dance documentary, No Maps on My Taps, when he had dinner with musician Ry Cooder.

“I asked him for any suggestions that he had for another topic for an interesting film, and he said — these were his exact words — he said, ‘You oughta look into gospel music; those cats are really neat,’ ” Nierenberg remembers.

Dorsey was a popular blues pianist and arranger — he was best known as Ma Rainey’s band leader, until he took the blues and adapted it to sacred music. In the film, he tells the story of how the death of his wife and their newborn child led him to church music.

“I just tried to make my little talk to the Lord but it was wasted, I think,” Dorsey tells the audience.

“And ladies and gentlemen, believe it or not, I started singing right then and there: ‘Precious Lord, take my hand,’ ” Dorsey continues, launching into song at the end of his story.

Nierenberg’s other main character was Mother Willie Mae Ford Smith, one of gospel’s pioneering female ministers and performers, and a mentor to younger singers.

“It’s just a feeling within; you can’t help yourself,” Smith says in the film, describing the experience of singing gospel. “It goes between the marrow and the bone. It just makes you feel like you want to — you hear me say I want to fly away somewhere? I feel like I can fly away!”

Nierenberg, a 28-year-old Jewish man, knew almost nothing about gospel before he started Say Amen, Somebody; he spent a year in black churches in New York, Chicago and St. Louis, listening to the music, getting to know the performers and earning their trust before he began filming. And that’s how he came to capture his subjects accurately, says Dr. Rhea Combs.

“He is coming in as a collaborator with them, as opposed to this notion or feeling of voyeurism,” she says. “He is understanding the dynamics at play and he has a sensitivity to the story and the people — truly to the people — and respects them. And I think that that respect is then reflected in the way in which the film is produced and directed.”

Combs is curator of photography and film at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which helped fund the restoration of Say Amen, Somebody. She says another thing that sets the film apart is its focus on female performers; Nierenberg says the women faced opposition from both the Church and their families

“They were bucking the system when it came to performing their music in churches,” he says. “Ministers didn’t want them there. And they insisted; they pursued it nonetheless.”

In the film, Mother Smith talks about her husband’s resistance to her traveling; Delois Barrett Campbell’s husband objects, too.

“You know, Frank, this has been my life dream to go abroad,” Barrett says to her husband in one scene. “From a childhood day I dreamed of being a great singer, and singing over in Europe. And now that the chance has come, to just stop and [not] be able to fulfill my dream when it is really coming into reality — it would be quite a letdown to me.”

Nierenberg’s documentary catches these performers in their homes and at two events: the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses and a tribute to Mother Willie Mae Ford Smith that Nierenberg helped put together.

“You have this kind of new tradition of people singing and re-invigorating gospel music in a different sort of way,” she says. “You have the Barrett Sisters; you have the O’Neal Twins. You have this kind of inter-generational blending, and we’re seeing that in this film, where there is this sort of critical moment within the tradition of gospel music — sort of this passing of the torch, if you will.”

For his part, Nierenberg is grateful for the restoration of Say Amen, Somebody because of what it might mean for new audiences, especially because the film’s central figures are no longer with us: Thomas A. Dorsey died in 1993 and Mother Willie Mae Ford Smith died the following year.

“When I saw the film after it was restored, it felt like a new film completely,” he says. “And I think the real treasure for me is the legacy of the film and how it will carry forward gospel music and allow people for generations to experience this music: at this time and place and [with] those people that really created it.”

Critic’s Choice: ‘Say Amen, Somebody’ sings the praises of gospel music

Sep. 12, 2019 11:18 AM PT

What has been a very good year for the live performance of gospel music on film is about to get better. First came the release of “Amazing Grace,” the record of a legendary 1972 Aretha Franklin gospel performance, and now comes the re-release of the joyous 1982 documentary, “Say Amen, Somebody.”

Directed by George T. Nierenberg, “Say Amen” mixes emotionally powerful performance footage by some renowned gospel names and cinema vérité footage of the singers in their off-stage lives.

Heard and seen are legends such as Thomas A. Dorsey, often considered the creator of gospel and responsible for classics like “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” and the formidable singer Willie Mae Ford Smith. Another generation, represented by the Barrett sisters, the O’Neal twins and Zella Jackson Price are also heard to excellent effect.

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