Hot Rhythms and Hearty Praise

The Staple Singers are a main focus of the documentary “Rejoice and Shout” at the Bay Street Theatre Monday.

   Before Joe Lauro could see his 10-year labor of love made manifest in the flickering images of a documentary film, there were a few minor obstacles to overcome. “We had two hours to tell a story that goes back 300 years,” he said Friday.
    The “we” there encompasses the director, Don McGlynn, the subject is the history of gospel music in this country, and the complicating factors include more than 150 hours of footage to pare down.
    The result, “Rejoice and Shout,” which Mr. Lauro produced, will be screened at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor on Monday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $15 in advance, $20 at the door. The Harvest Gospel Choir of Riverhead will sing afterward.
    “Every little town has these singers and performers,” Mr. Lauro said. “It’s just such a big part of the African-American experience and culture.”
    The Staple Singers, Mahalia Jackson, the Selvey Family, and the Soul Stirrers (with Sam Cooke) are among those in the Magnolia Films release.
    “You hear the hottest rhythm and blues, but in the context of worship and praising. . . . It predates jazz and predates blues and predates R&B — back to the turn of the last century. You hear a lot of the same stuff” in gospel that you do in other popular forms, then and now, “because it’s the basis for all this other music.”
    His role went beyond your standard producer’s work, from finding the interviewees to digging up old footage to the germ of the idea in the first place.
    “It took me a long time to get people to pay attention to this project. Most Caucasians don’t understand about this music.” The broader release of “Rejoice and Shout” last week was anticipated on June 3 at the Film Forum in New York, where “it was interesting to watch the audiences,” Mr. Lauro said. “There were mixed crowds, but the blacks had their hands raised and were shouting. They were seeing people who were gods to their music — Rosetta Sharp, the Dixie Hummingbirds.” Whites sat quietly: “One group sees it as an educational experience.”
    It reminded him of what he’s considered before, that the history of African-American spiritual music “exists in a kind of parallel universe.” Parallel to the mainstream, perhaps, but no less significant for it.
    Mr. Lauro lives in Sag Harbor and runs Historic Films in Greenport. The company licenses historic material and American music on film to the likes of the Grammys and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
    But back to those 300 years: “The music goes back to the slaves,” he said. “They blended their religion with Christianity, and blended their music with Anglo music, and that’s the basis for American music, the best thing we have to give the world.”