Staples goes first, alone and a-blast. Jackson follows her with equal force and in defiance of whatever had been ailing her. Then together — Jackson refulgent in a fuchsia gown with a gold diamond emblazoned below her bosom; Staples in something short, lacy, belted and white — they embark on the single most astounding duet I’ve ever heard, seen or felt. They share the microphone. They pass it between them. Howling, moaning, wailing, hopping, but well within the song’s generous contours and, somehow, in control of themselves. My tears weren’t jerked as I watched. The ducts simply gave way, and the mask I wore at the theater where I sat was eventually covered in runny, viscous salt.
They’re singing for the festival’s attendees. They’re mourning all of the death — of leaders, of followers, of troops and civilians. They are, if you’re willing to see it this way, lamenting what is obviously a generational transition from one phase of Black political expression to another, from resolve to anger, from the grandiloquence of Jackson’s pile of hair to Staples’s blunter Afro. They are singing this cherished classic of bereavement in order to mourn the present and the past. Listening to them now, in the summer of 2021, plumb earth and scrape sky, you weep, not only for the raw beauty of their voices but because it feels as if these two instruments of God were also mourning the future.
I don’t remember how long this performance lasts. It doesn’t really even have an ending, per se. It just simply concludes, with each woman heading back to the reverend, into the band. But when it’s over you don’t know what to do — well, besides never forget it. It’s an extraordinary event not just of musical history. It’s a mind-blowing moment of American history. And for five decades, the footage of it apparently just sat in a basement, waiting for someone like Thompson to give it its due.
The whole movie is dues-giving. It’s true that nothing matches the high of Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples. Yet nothing that surrounds them feels puny or like an afterthought. Thompson has an assortment of people watch footage from the festival — attendees who were kids and teenagers at the time, performers who were there, folks like Sheila E., who learned her craft from some of these artists. And I was almost as devastated by the sight of Marilyn McCoo’s putting her hands to her face as she watches her younger self with the rest of the Fifth Dimension, recounting how in-between they felt as Black artists who Black people didn’t always think were Black enough. Their sound was light and round and reliant upon strings and harmonies that were commercial for 1969 but not cool. In this film, among Simone and Max Roach and Hugh Masekela, the Fifth Dimension don’t at all seem like outsiders. They seem like family.
Throughout this thing, Thompson is dropping explanatory information and montages that are crosscut with more information. A passage about the national climate of ’69, for instance, is mixed in with the Chambers Brothers’s festival performance. And you’re sitting there in awe at how the film hasn’t lost you. It’s got its own rhythm. The images, the music, the news, the reminiscences, the commentary often come at you at once. And with another director what you’d be left with is noise, with mess. This is certainly where Thompson’s being a bandleader — a band-leading drummer; a band-leading drummer who D.J.s — matters. The onslaught operates differently here. The chaos is an idea.
On one hand, this is just cinema. On the other, there’s something about the way that the editing keeps time with the music, the way the talking is enhancing what’s onstage rather than upstaging it. In many of these passages, facts, gyration, jive and comedy are cut across one another yet in equilibrium. So, yeah: cinema, obviously. But also something that feels rarer: syncopation.