Black church music has been around for centuries, but gospel only became codified as a genre about a century ago, as this jubilant film reveals. There’s plenty of archival footage that traces the history of the form through the lens of “father of gospel music” Thomas Dorsey, who wrote “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” the Martin Luther King Jr. favorite that figures prominently in “Summer of Soul.”
‘Say Amen, Somebody’ (1982)
‘A Great Day in Harlem’ (1994)
Jazz giants (Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Coleman Hawkins) gathered for a group portrait in 1958. Jean Bach’s Oscar-nominated film describes what went on behind the effort to rustle up the musicians, some of whom were not reliable and some of whom did not like each other. “It was like a family reunion,” one of them remembers in the film, which can be viewed for free on YouTube and which now feels like an almost unimaginable gathering of legendary talents.
‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’ (2015)
It’s impossible to encapsulate a life in a couple of hours but the genius of this Liz Garbus biodoc about Nina Simone is that it doesn’t pretend to. The jazz/blues/pop singer was an incredibly complicated person, which the film reveals with archival interviews, intimate performance footage and chats with those who knew her, including her daughter. It plays out like snapshots of a rich but difficult life and, because Garbus is modest about her intentions, those snapshots add up to a fascinating portrait.
‘Amazing Grace’ (2019)
Shot in 1972, when Aretha Franklin was at the height of her powers, the film was not released for decades because of litigation and production issues. Franklin was dead by the time it hit theaters, making the film even more poignant because of its footage of Franklin and a choir recording what would become the most popular gospel album of all time.
Even if you’re not nuts about the music of Joan Baez, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and others (I’m not), the film is worth watching for its portrait of people at a striking moment in time. An Oscar winner for best documentary, it’s a triumph of editing and reporting that is much more than a concert film.
‘Stop Making Sense’ (1984)
Jonathan Demme’s work seems simple: a concert film so narrowly focused that we rarely even see the audience. But Demme and Talking Heads structured the concert ingeniously, beginning with just singer David Byrne and gradually building both the size of the band and the sound of the music. Byrne’s hypnotic performance is the focus of the movie but Demme also attends to quirky bassist Tina Weymouth and singers Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt because they’re all stars. You could pair “Sense” with Spike Lee’s “American Utopia,” a Byrne performance that further illuminates his surreal performance style.
‘20 Feet From Stardom’ (2013)
Their names were unknown outside the music biz, but the backup singers here — mostly Black, mostly female — demonstrate plenty of star quality. Darlene Love is the most familiar name but Lynn Mabry (who’s also in “Stop Making Sense”), Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer all demonstrate pipes that should have had bigger careers. The highlight is a sequence that isolates Clayton’s scorching vocal track on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.”