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Culture Documentary

Magnolia Pictures


Magnolia Pictures

Documentary

Rejoice & Shout

Film tells the jubilant history of black gospel music

Rejoice & Shout begins with a voice belting "Amazing Grace" with the purity of a child and the depth of a seasoned performer. The voice belongs to a little girl sitting in a church pew surrounded by her family, carrying on a musical tradition centuries old. As one of the girl's gospel music forebears says, "Gospel music is what kept us going, gave us strength."

Rejoice & Shout tells the jubilant history of black gospel music, from the slaves who adapted the hymns they heard in church, to the freedom singers in the 1960s and the hip-hop singers of today. It interlaces historical analysis with interviews from the greats-Smokey Robinson, Mavis Staples, Ira Tucker, and Marie Knight. The Ward Singers croon a version of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" that swings from yearning to rejoicing. Claude Jeter's clear falsetto pipes silky harmonies with the Swan Silvertones.

The film escapes hagiography by peopling the history with real people, not cardboard cutouts of haloed saints. There is a stage mother who sabotages her daughter's pop ambitions, a savvy musician who writes racy songs for nightclubs and gospel songs for church, and a singer who makes women swoon from a feeling less pure than when they're slain by the Holy Ghost.

The documentary provokes thought about the nature of Christian art's relationship to the world, as it tells the story of a Christian musical genre that drew from but also shaped the popular music of its time. The artists nurtured a genre unique and faith-filled, rooted in an ethnic subculture but crossing over in a way that transcended race and even religion.

The lead singer of the Blind Boys of Mississippi said if you ask him how he is this day-not this week or year but this day-he replies, "I'm leaning on Jesus." The gospel songs began with the slaves singing to lighten their everyday load, just as modern gospel writer Andraé Crouch does when says his songs come not from a heavenly voice but "normal living": "He just wants to be part of it."

Listen to Alisa Harris discuss Rejoice & Shout on The World and Everything in It.

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Samuel Goldwyn Films


Samuel Goldwyn Films

Documentary

Exporting Raymond

How do you adapt a U.S.

In American comedy, wives are scolds and husbands are hapless. In Exporting Raymond, Phil Rosenthal-executive producer of the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond-introduces to Russia the harried Debra and henpecked Raymond Romano. As Rosenthal advises a Russian network on how to adapt the sitcom, he struggles to find a way to retain the premise-the squabbles of a disputatious but loving multigenerational family-and rework it for a different culture.

Hunkered in an endearingly ugly sheepskin coat, he treks through the bleak Moscow landscape and the dank halls of the Russian studio. Rosenthal befriends his driver, a Soviet military veteran, and he thaws a rigidly coiffed costume designer who insists all Russian wives do housework while wearing cashmere and stilettos. When Rosenthal interviews a curator who venerates Britney Spears as the best American pop culture offers, we get a sense of the obstacles Rosenthal faces.

The documentary has warm and funny moments, but some of these moments seem disconnected and the film ends up feeling stretched thin. Meanwhile, the show's central question-is Raymond universal?-remains unsatisfactorily answered. Rosenthal persists in believing that his view of the family is a universal one, but the Russians keep insisting that their men are more macho than Raymond and their own families do not share the Romanos' bickering power struggle. Rosenthal may be right, but I left the film wishing he'd explored the nuances of Russian family life more deeply.

Rosenthal has his querulous and distracted moments, but he heroically battles all cheesy fare and struggles to communicate the idea of a sitcom that exaggerates real life but is also recognizable as real life. As he tries to resolve his creative differences by befriending his detractors, it's hard not to love him. Just like everybody-maybe even in Russia-loves the character he created.

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Marc Valessela/IFC Films


Marc Valessela/IFC Films

Documentary

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

German director Werner Herzog creeps deep into Chauvet Cave in southern France

In a film that blends paleontological wonders with existential pondering, Cave of Forgotten Dreams asks the question, "What constitutes humanness?" German director Werner Herzog creeps deep into Chauvet Cave in southern France, where researchers say they have found the earliest known cave paintings. The charcoal paintings etched on the curved walls of the cave-some say from 32,000 B.C., others say 10,000 B.C.-look as though someone scratched them there last week.

A landslide sealed the cave thousands of years ago, creating a perfectly preserved time capsule until explorers discovered it in 1994. Only a few scientists are allowed inside, and Herzog labored under a set of strict rules to preserve the cave's delicate environment. He had to use battery-powered cameras and lights that did not give off heat. The film crew was forbidden to step off a 2-foot-wide walkway and could only stay in the cave for a few hours at a time. Despite the logistical difficulties, the film is a cinematic tour de force. Herzog uses light and shadow to create the illusion of a flickering torch on a cave wall, just as the painters would have seen it long ago. The filming elevates 3D to true artistry, giving shape and depth to the curves and contours of the cave wall. The paintings are more fluid and full of life and movement than medieval paintings thousands of years later.

There's a sense that these ancestors were not the hulking, empty-headed cavemen often portrayed but souls with the urge to communicate and represent the wonders of their world. The paleontologists and archaeologists approach the paintings with awe, dreaming about the lives and hopes of the people who created them. "It is," says narrator Herzog, "as if the modern human soul had awakened here."

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