|Say Amen, Somebody
Featuring Willie May Ford Smith, Thomas A. Dorsey, Sallie Martin, the Barrett Sisters, Edward and Edgar O'Neal and Zella Jackson Price. United Artists Classics presents a film directed by George Nierenberg and produced by George and Karen Nierenberg. Classified G.
“Say Amen, Somebody” is one of the most joyful
movies I've ever seen. It is also one of the best musicals and one
of the most interesting documentaries. And it's a terrific good time. The
movie is about gospel music, and it's filled with gospel music. It's sung
by some of the pioneers of modern gospel, who are now in their seventies
and eighties, and it's sung by some of the rising younger stars, and it's
sung by choirs of kids. It's sung in churches and around the dining
room table; with orchestras and a capella; by an old man named Thomas A.
Dorsey in front of thousands of people; and by Dorsey standing all by
himself in his own backyard. The music in “Say Amen, Somebody”is as
exciting and uplifting as any music I've
The people in this movie are something, too. The filmmaker, a young New Yorker named George T. Nierenberg, starts by introducing us to two pioneers of modern gospel: Mother Willie May Ford Smith, who is seventy-nine, and Professor Dorsey, who is eighty-three. She was one of the first gospel soloists; he is known as the Father of Gospel Music. The film opens at tributes to the two of them--Mother Smith in a St. Louis church, Dorsey at a Houston convention--and then Nierenberg cuts back and forth between their memories, their families, their music, and the music sung in tribute to them by younger performers.
That keeps the movie from seeming too much like the wrong kind of documentary--the kind that feels like an educational film and is filled with boring lists of dates and places. “Say Amen Somebody” never stops moving, and even the dates and places are open to controversy (there's a hilarious sequence in which Dorsey and Mother Smith disagree very pointedly over exactly which of them convened the first gospel convention).
What's amazing in all of the musical sequences is the quality of the sound. A lot of documentaries use "available sound," picked up by microphones more appropriate for the television news. This movie's concerts are miked by up to eight microphones, and the Dolby system is used to produce full stereo sound that really rocks. Run it through your stereo speakers, and play it loud.
Willie May Ford Smith comes across in this movie as an extraordinary woman, spiritual, filled with love and power. Dorsey and his longtime business manager, Sallie Martin, come across at first as a little crusty, but then there's a remarkable scene where they sing along, softly, with one of Dorsey's old records. By the end of the film, when the ailing Dorsey insists on walking under his own steam to the front of the gospel convention in Houston, and leading the delegates in a hymn, we have come to see his strength and humanity. Just in case Smith and Dorsey seem too noble, the film uses a lot of mighty soul music as a counterpoint, particularly in the scenes shot during a tribute to Mother Smith at a St. Louis Baptist church. We see Delois Barrett Campbell and the Barrett Sisters, a Chicago-based trio who have enormous musical energy; the O'Neal Twins, Edward and Edgar, whose "Jesus Dropped the Charges" is a show-stopper; Zella Jackson Price, a younger singer who turns to Mother Smith for advice; the Interfaith Choir; and lots of other singers.
“Say Amen, Somebody” is the kind of movie that isn't made very often,
because it takes an unusual combination of skills. The filmmaker has to be
able to identify and find his subjects, win their confidence, follow them
around, and then also find the technical skill to really capture what
makes them special. Nierenberg's achievement here is a masterpiece of
research, diligence, and direction. But his work would be meaningless if
the movie didn't convey the spirit of the people in it, and SAY AMEN,
SOMEBODY does that with mighty joy. This is a great experience.