Interview: Don McGlynn – Acclaimed Music Documentary Filmmaker

Posted: May 5, 2011 in film/tv, interview, music
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Don McGlynnDate of Interview: 05/05/2011

Don McGlynn is the director of Rejoice and Shout, a landmark documentary that explores the depth and breadth of America’s revered Gospel music history. With no historical precedent, McGlynn braved the arduous challenge of compiling multiple rich – and layered – narratives into a coherent two-hour product that spotlights beloved performance groups with as much care as its presentation of Baptist and Pentecostal traditions. The filmmaker’s passion was matched, of course, by a team of meticulous specialists that aurally and visually restored hours of archival footage from the personal collection of executive producer Joe Lauro.

In the midst of promotional media showings of Rejoice and Shout, Don McGlynn managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on the documentary’s research process, its impact on his spiritual relationship with God, and common misconceptions regarding the Gospel genre.

Clayton Perry:  When you reflect on the making of Rejoice and Shout, what immediate thoughts come to mind?

Don McGlynn:  Well, the first thing I like to share is my belief that this music – Gospel music – is the single most-inspiring music that you can possibly hear. It doesn’t matter if you’re religious, or if you’re just somebody who loves music; it is so stirring. While making the film, this was something that was really great to experience. Now of course, the fact that I’m also religious makes it even more exciting to listen to, and it makes me love this music even more because you can see that there’s so much commitment in the people that are performing it. One of the things I thought was important to say with this film: these artists really mean it. They really have a strong feeling for God, and I wanted people to get a feeling for how they worshipped with the testimonials and the getting slain in the Spirit and the preaching and all that. And I thought creating a context with that would be really good so you understood the power and conviction behind this music.

Clayton Perry:  Since you are religious, in what ways did this project make your spiritual relationship with God stronger or healthier?

Don McGlynn:  From my point of view, whether you are religious or if you’re not, if you are just a decent, giving, caring, nice human being, that’s really important and that’s really great. And I do think one of the great things about this film for me was everybody I met was that way. Mavis Staple was a decent, caring, kind human being. So was Smokey Robinson. So was Bill Carpenter and Jacquie Gales Webb. These were all people that were in the film. And I like that. My feeling is if I can put that out and share it with people, and they realize that and communicate back with me, it’s really inspiring for me. People can enjoy this music because it’s inspiring even if they’re not religious.

Clayton Perry:  As you tracked the evolution of Gospel music through the making of this documentary, I am curious to know what you consider to be some of the common misconceptions about Gospel music.

Don McGlynn:  Well, I think one of the more interesting things is there would be the music there, and then someone would put in some other thing. Thomas Dorsey would have the blues. These days people would put in rap and hip-hop, and they would say: “Well, that’s the Devil!” One of the things I really identify with most in this film is Smokey Robinson’s comments all the way through; but in particular when he said that there is nothing wrong with someone praising God and listening to rap music. This is just the way that people are communicating with one another. And if somebody’s dismissing it because it’s got rap in there, it’s not the devil in that music. They have to get used to the changes of the music. The music has to speak to people and evolve through the years. How do you feel about that?

Clayton Perry:  Well, I have mixed feelings. One of my favorite Gospel artists is Kirk Franklin. I have followed his work closely, for over a decade, and he had a very “traditional” sound, with a choir to match, when he first came out with the “Melodies from Heaven”. And recently, he has experimented with all types of genres: jazz, rap, rock, everything. I personally do not have a problem with it. I guess on a more sociological level, I’m not certain – or at ease – about where certain beats and sounds send people mentally. They might have a reference point that is not Christ-like that comes into mind while singing about Christ. I guess that is where I am, a little on the fence. I do not mind people experimenting and taking music into different directions.  However, if there is a beat or something being recycled and then the previous song may or may not have been holy, then just what  does that do mentally to people in the confines of a praise and worship service?

Don McGlynn:  It’s sort of hard to drag it out. I think that if Kirk Franklin’s intention is to praise God, and you have an association with the beat to something else, it is possible that what’s going in you might not be happening in him. But of course, Kirk Franklin should be thinking about you, too, at the same time. He might think: “This might provoke this in the audience.” It’s a complicated question. My main point is I think if the music communicates the message, then it’s a good Gospel song, which is what Jacquie Gales Webb says in the movie. And I’m comfortable with that. I think that’s a good point.

Clayton Perry:  Well, as the old adage goes, the only constant in this world is change, and whenever change comes, friction occurs.

Don McGlynn:  Yeah, exactly.

Clayton Perry:  As this project came into fruition, what was the most surprising fact that you discovered?

Don McGlynn:  Well, there were dozens of things, but one thing that I was really intrigued by an association that I made. I was telling a friend of mine who is Jewish about the project, and he said: “You know? I think there’s an awful lot of connections between African-American Gospel music and Jewish people.” I said: “Really?” And he said: “Yeah, there’s something about the Old Testament that we can somehow relate to.” Then I started listening to the music, and there’s all this stuff about crossing the river Jordan and making that journey. Then I thought: “ Well, wait a minute. This is something that people in America have felt, too. Crossing the Mississippi River to the other side where you weren’t enslaved anymore.” And there was a lot of resonance in that. I remember talking with Bill Carpenter about that and he said: “Oh yeah, that’s a really good point.” And it is true. I mean, there’s a reason that those songs are so much about crossing the river Jordan. But also “crossing the river Jordan” is also a state of mind. It’s a really interesting point for me; but there are all kinds of great discoveries I made musically. Everybody in the movie I love. I had heard a lot of them. There were a few people I hadn’t heard before. I don’t think I had heard the Swan Silverstones before, and I love them. I had heard The Soul Stirrers but I hadn’t heard their early stuff, and I loved that. And then I was really delighted to meet these young people, the Selvey Family and Darrel Petties. They’re young people that are living right around Memphis. I think they’re wonderful people and really great. It was a thrill. I mean, it was a great thrill, the whole project.

Clayton Perry:  From the outside looking in, one could assume that the older eras of Gospel music would be the hardest to research. I would argue, however, that the past few decades have not been documented adequately either, which would also make the research process harder to complete. Which era of Gospel music did you find the hardest to document, and what particular challenges did you face in the creation of Rejoice and Shout?

Don McGlynn:  You’re pretty clever. And you’re really smart on this question because a lot of people, when they watch a movie like this, they say,  “Well everything is there and everything’s available to you.” They don’t realize that a lot of times nobody bothered to film it.  Nobody recorded it. Nobody did this or that. I think one of the great things about this topic is that it’s intriguing to me that the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet made their record in 1902. I’m a huge blues and jazz fan also. African-Americans weren’t making records until like 1921; so that’s very interesting that people had the foresight and that they felt there was a need to make records like this that early. I think that’s really interesting. But no, I wish there was an hour of Mahalia Jackson singing in a church from 1946, but there isn’t. When I hear those records, I think: “God, that’s the best music she probably ever did!” But I was so glad that we had the clip that we did. That was the first clip of her. I wish that there was some more with The Soul Stirrers. I love [Rebert] H. Harris, who originally led the band, as well as Sam Cooke. But at least we have some Soul Stirrers in the movie. There was always this frustration of juggling what was missing to try to give you a picture of it anyway. There’s this great period, though, starting in the 1950s where everybody seemed to get filmed, and that was a real relief. That’s where I found The Staple Singers footage and The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and The Blind Boys of Alabama and James Cleveland. These are such wonderful talents and I’m so glad that we have that footage of them in their prime.

Clayton Perry:  Once you became aware of the rising availability of video footage in the fifties, were you able to pinpoint any particular institutions or organizations at the forefront of this movement?

Don McGlynn:  There was a series called TV Gospel Time. It was on every week. It was a half-hour long. It was usually in a particular town and they would have a local choir performing. James Cleveland might be on one week, and The Caravans may be on the following week. Then later on there was another show called Jubilee which went into the 1970s, and that’s where we found the Andraé Crouch clip. But they also had shows in the sixties with The Dixie Hummingbirds. So that was really great that, that stuff existed. But it was kind of hard to find anything before 1950, although we highlighted some really interesting things, like the Norfolk Jubilee Quartet from 1929. And that was before The Jazz Singer. The Jazz Singer was 1927. That’s supposed to be the first sound film. In 1922, you had the Utica Quartet singing with sound. It’s something really interesting that people thought that this was important to document early, and that kind of kept it going. The biggest frustration was say between 1850 and 1910. There’s hardly any photographs or anything about the transition from slavery to being free; and we really had to work hard to try to portray that era. That was the biggest frustration, because there really isn’t a lot of documentation.

Clayton Perry:  As you sorted through all of your research, what was one of the biggest obstacles you had in condensing it all into one cohesive project?

Don McGlynn:  The biggest thing was figuring out what music I wanted to use, the stuff that I thought sort of covered the years but that I also love. And then I had to build up the breaks in between the numbers. And having the right balance was the biggest complication. It was also kind of hard to end it. How do you end this story because it’s ongoing? And while we were making the film, Barack Obama was elected president. That helped give it some closure, because if you go from slavery, and then ultimately to a point when an African-American becomes President of the United States, that gives it a little bit more closure. But it was very frustrating for me getting the absolute right balance. You didn’t want to overemphasize one thing and forget anything. Of course, sometimes people will say, “Oh, I wish you had, had Mighty Clouds of Joy, Mary Mary,” or whomever else in the film. But, you know. It’s a two-hour movie and we did as best we could.

Clayton Perry:  Time is always a point of concern. As a director, I am sure that you are a perfectionist at your craft, just like any other artist. What parts of the documentary hit the cutting room floor, although your heart may have been deeply invested in them? What was the key rationale behind your decision?

Don McGlynn:  I really liked Andraé Crouch, and we had a nice time. But the clip was just too long – around 15 minutes. Thankfully, since it was so great, we preserved it by including it in the DVD extras. Andraé told this story about how he’s going along and working in the church. Then his father died and that was so depressing and intense. His brother ended up becoming the head of the church, and then within a month or two, he died. Then Andraé had to take the spot of being pastor. And he was explaining this horrible series of events, and how he was sitting there just so sad, losing two important family members. And on one side he was really happy because he always wanted to be a pastor, and it was really hard to keep going on. First of all, I was touched that he shared that story with us. Then I thought it was so interesting that he somehow kept going on and thriving, nonetheless. But with the limited amount of time and visual space, we couldn’t fit it in the movie.

Clayton Perry:  And now that you have a finished product, are there any elements that you recognize that you may have overlooked or omitted?

Don McGlynn:  Well, I can’t say that I hadn’t considered all the options. I mean, I could make a wish list. And right near the top would be The Soul Stirrers with Sam Cooke, because I love that. I think it would have been thrilling for people to see that. I think it would have been really good for the film and I would personally like it; but even more, I would have loved to have seen The Soul Stirrers with R.H. Harris, because that’s probably my favorite vocal group. But there are so many clips that I wish were there. Like I said about Mahalia, I wish there was something from 1946. I wish there was more footage of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. But there was some. I wasn’t that frustrated. I wish there was a better clip from that time with James Cleveland and the whole choir, because I think one of the greatest concerts I’ve ever seen has been James Cleveland with his choir. It was just so overpoweringly strong and moving and intense. I don’t think you could ever get that across on a film, what I felt that day. Almost impossible.

Clayton Perry:  In this day and time, with all the digital advancements in visual media, why does the issue of limited documentation still seem prevalent? Outside of the weekly Bobby Jones Gospel telecasts on BET, in addition to the annual Stellar and Dove award shows, there still appears to be a relatively low amount of documentation of the contemporary Gospel music scene.

Don McGlynn:  I agree with you. I don’t think there’s enough of it. But you’re right: a lot of people use their phones and other devices to record thirty-second clips of various Gospel groups they see in concert. And then they might throw it up on YouTube. But in terms of making a fuller picture with the whole documentary, I wish people would do that more. I can’t actually think of another documentary just like this.  I don’t think anybody’s done the whole history. There’s the classic Say Amen Everybody, which is about thirty years old now and focuses on Thomas A. Dorsey. It would be tremendous to have  something about what happened during the Depression and the civil rights era and how things were affected that way.  Also how things changed, too, after Martin Luther King, and now that Obama is president, how things have shifted and how the mentality changes.

Clayton Perry:  On a more personal level, what life events led you into the world of filmmaking? And where do you see this project leading you in the future?

Don McGlynn:  Well, ever since I was like one or two years old, I was obsessed with movies and music, both. And I could play instruments a little, but I never became exceptional at it. I actually think if there was any sort of God-given focus to this, it was to make music movies. That’s what I’ve been doing. On purpose, I said: “I don’t want to get in a rut. I want to do different things.” I would do a jazz film or a pop music one or a blues one or whatever. And when I was asked to do a Gospel one, I thought, “That’s great.”  Most of the films I’ve made have been very secular.  One of the last two pictures I made was about a jazz musician who is extremely devout who went to church every day which is unusual in the jazz world. And he’s a good friend of mine. And then I was making this Gospel film at the same time, so it was coming to me at a very good time in my life because I have two children and I think all the time about them, and my responsibilities. It’s been really a great experience for me applying these things. But if I were to point to anything in the movie, Smokey Robinson matches my mentality on all these issues throughout the film. He’s the one that says: “Well, if there isn’t a God, then how did all of this happen? Is there a greater power?” I completely agree, especially when he talks about people being slain in the Spirit, and how it scared him at first, and then he realized it. Smokey says he has a daily walk with God and he’s thanking God all the time. As a matter of fact, we talked about that before he said it. So that’s where I’m at with the film, and it’s been really enriching for me on that level. And now I’m going over to do classical music, so that will be nice, too. I’m going to get inspired by Mozart and Beethoven. I’m looking forward to it.

For more information on Rejoice and Shout, visit the official Magnolia Pictures website: http://www.magpictures.com/rejoiceandshout/

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