A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
"Say Amen, Somebody" is the most joyful movie I've seen in a very long time. It is also one of the best musicals and one of the most interesting documentaries. And it's also a terrific good time.
The movie is about gospel music, and it's filled with gospel music. It's sung by some of the pioneers of modern gospel, who are now in their 70s and 80s, and it's sung by some of the rising younger stars, and it's sung by choirs of kids. It's sung in churches and around the dining room table; with orchestras and a capella; by an old man named Thomas A. Dorsey in front of thousands of people, and by Dorsey standing all by himself in his own backyard. The music in "Say Amen, Somebody" is as exciting and uplifting as any music I've ever heard on film.
The people in this movie are something, too. The filmmaker, a young New Yorker named George T. Nierenberg, starts by introducing us to two pioneers of modern gospel: Mother Willie May Ford Smith, who is 79, and Professor Dorsey, who is 83. She was one of the first gospel soloists; he is known as the Father of Gospel Music. The film opens at tributes to the two of them -- Mother Smith in a St. Louis church, Dorsey at a Houston convention -- and then Nierenberg cuts back and forth between their memories, their families, their music and the music sung in tribute to them by younger performers.
That keeps the movie from seeming too much like the wrong kind of documentary -- the kind that feels like an educational film and is filled with boring lists of dates and places. "Say Amen, Somebody" never stops moving, and even the dates and places are open to controversy (there's a hilarious sequence in which Dorsey and Mother Smith disagree very pointedly over exactly which of them convened the first gospel convention).