Movie: Say Amen, Somebody (1982)

I am not religious.  I am not Black.  And yet I feel a strong attraction to gospel music.

Admittedly, the kind of gospel I prefer is gritty, lo-fi and from the 60’s and early 70’s—much like the majority of the garage rock I like.  I don’t believe I enjoy this music in a patronizing way, at least I certainly hope I don’t. 

The gospel performers in Say Amen, Somebody are of an older and more sophisticated variety than I normally listen to, and yet I thoroughly enjoyed the energetic performances in this documentary. 

The focus of the picture is on singer Willie Mae Ford Smith and gospel polymath Thomas A. Dorsey.  Dorsey is the composer of the ageless standard “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and is widely regarded as the founder of this musical genre. 

This 1982 film captures the movement at a transition point.  There’s a lot of talk about the possibility of there being big money in gospel soon.  That may sound daft, but remember Whitney Houston started as a gospel singer.  And, while not gospel per se, religious pop made some coin in the 80s with singers like Amy Grant.

But the legends paid tribute to here do not seem to be preoccupied with earthly gains.  At one point, Smith says that, when she’s singing, “I feel like I could fly away from here”.  And she seems realistic about her advanced age when she says, “I may have cracks in my voice as wide as the Mississippi River, but that river keeps on flowing”.  I like that.

Another sign of the passing of an age is a visit to a decrepit, abandoned train station.  It was once a thriving hub of transportation and a couple of Smith’s relatives recall her heyday when the crowds used to throng to greet her there. 

Roger Ebert chose this as on the best films of that year.  The man has taste.  While I don’t agree the film is that great, it is incredibly good—a snapshot of an era in transition and the last fleeting glimpses of a previous era about to fade away forever.

Dir: George T. Nierenberg

Starring Willa Mae Ford Smith, Thomas A. Dorsey

Watched on blu-ray