The Good News is abundant throughout The Story of Gospel Music, an absorbing, BBC-produced look at the past and present of this vibrant black American music. Gospel, a joyous sound that’s both viscerally and spiritually uplifting, has been around for centuries, so it’s no easy task to provide an overview in a mere 90 minutes; indeed, many of the artists featured here are deserving of (and some, in fact, have) entire documentaries of their own. But the producers of The Story of Gospel Music have done a creditable job of it, by way of the usual parade of talking heads (many are highly entertaining and informative, but oddly, and annoyingly, nary a one of them is identified), music excerpts, and film clips. A reasonably thorough history is offered, including gospel’s African and English origins, the development of the call and response tradition (still readily apparent in rap music today), the inevitable co-opting and dilution of the music by whites, etc. There are also segments devoted to various gospel legends, including Thomas Dorsey, Rev, James Cleveland, and the amazing Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a superb guitarist who, like others before and since (cf. Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, and Aretha Franklin), played music that was both sanctified and “satanic” (i.e., jazz and blues) throughout her career. As is the case with so many products of this kind, the brevity of the musical performances is disappointing. However, this one has a saving grace, so to speak, in the form of two lengthy performances found in the bonus material, one a recital by the great Mahalia Jackson (from ’64), and the other a British television appearance by Shirley Caesar (from ’84). –Sam Graham
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