You Can’t Sing It for Them (2010)

Codirectors: Jacqueline Richard and Margot Fassler

The Talking Pictures Festival, April 14-17, 2011

By Marilyn Ferdinand

I don’t know about anyone else, but I generally don’t expect to hear business tropes about the need to rightsize or adapt or die coming from the precincts of a church. But that’s just the type of language the members of the four adult choirs who sing for the 123-year-old W.E.B. Du Bois Messiah Baptist Church in Bridgeport, Connecticut heard from their dynamic young pastor, Rev. Tyrone Jones, and their new music director, Jonathan Berryman. Jones’ motto for Messiah Baptist is “Multi-faceted Ministries for the New Millennium and Beyond,” and his charge to Berryman, an Ivy League graduate in music, was to consolidate the choirs. You Can’t Sing It for Them chronicles Berryman’s work from January 2008 to January 2009 to achieve this goal and to grow future generations of choir members capable of bringing back the full breadth of sacred music that is the heritage of Messiah Baptist and other largely African-American congregations.

Rev. Jones, who became the church’s fifth pastor in 2002, brought his Pentacostal roots and charismatic style of preaching to bear as he worked to establish a less formal, more participatory style of worship among the congregation. Berryman’s background is a much closer fit. He grew up attending a “silk stocking” Baptist church in Virginia with a very staid, middle-class congregation, and Messiah reminds him of his home church: “Whether it knows it or not, it is a silk-stocking church.” The church’s century-and-some-change continuity is impressive, but also presents an obstacle to some of the changes Jones and Berryman want to make.

Berryman emphasizes the need for consolidation to get the “meatier sound” of many voices singing together, as well as to ensure that there are enough voices raised in song in the first place. The Senior Choir especially suffers from insufficient numbers due to members who have health problems or who travel a good deal during the year. But the decision to merge the Senior Choir, the Ensemble Choir, and the Gospel Choir to form the Mass Choir is made without input of the choir members, and this situation presents Berryman with his first challenge. In particular, the Ensemble Choir is a small group of women who went from young womanhood to middle age singing together and who are vocal about wondering whether causing pain for the greater good really represents God’s will.

What comes through clearly is Berryman’s passion for sacred music in all its forms, and You Can’t Sing It for Them is as much a lesson in the history of African-American sacred music as it is a chronicle of Berryman’s journey toward his goal. “Spirituals, anthems, hymns, and traditional gospel music have been put on the shelf in a lot of churches. The musicians who had the skill set to teach that kind of music died.” Through the use of a chalk board and archival drawings and photos, Berryman takes the viewer through the evolution of African-American church music, from African chants to the structured anthems Berryman particularly likes and wants to revive and beyond to the modern gospel that Berryman believes is even more complex in ways than anthems.

The film is short, and this presents a problem in trying to understand the music at anything more than a superficial level. Practice sessions of the combined choir are shown briefly, giving us an idea of the work that will need to go into blending many voices that have fallen into bad habits in their smaller silos, but not much more. Berryman has a joking, winning personality, but he’s a hard taskmaster. He teaches music at a local grade school, and can be brutal to the students he is trying to train to be the kind of musicians who can handle all the music he wants to revive.

The directors often succeed in avoiding the potential monotony of talking heads, offering us the beauty of the music, meetings of the choirs, lively church services, and different points of view from the choir members. At other times, their attempts to be cinematic are kind of cheesy. For example, Berryman talks about working in God’s time, and the camera shifts to a wall clock; in another example, he says that one could make more money as a studio musician, and we get a shot of coins falling on a counter.

The film ends with a tribute concert of the Mass Choir for Mrs. Martha Gonzalez, a former music director, who is, perhaps, predictably no-nonsense and grudging in her approval of the music. Despite a familiar arc to the story, the information and personalities make the film an enjoyable, worthwhile experience.

You Can’t Sing It for Them screens Saturday, April 16, 3 p.m., at the Evanston Public Library, 1703 Orrington Ave.

This film has also been booked for the 2011 Chicago International Movies and Music Festival. It screens Friday, April 15, 6 p.m., at the Chicago Cultural Center, Claudia Cassidy Theater, 78 E. Washington St., Chicago.

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