The story of Al Green is a fascinating one; a breakout soul singer in the early 1970s, by the end of the decade he had someone kill themselves in his presence (after pouring hot grits on him), and he decided to record gospel music, to be more in line with his quest of becoming an ordained minister. He did not renounce the songs that made him great, he did redirect the passion in those songs into traditional gospel work. Robert Mugge (The Return of Ruben Blades) focused on this early gospel period in Green's life for this 1984 documentary.
The film includes lots of interview footage of Green as he discusses his past and the things that brought him to that point in life, including the aforementioned incident with Mary Woodson White, and he talks about his secular music and using it as a segue to the spiritual tunes. Along with him, interviews with recording studio whiz Willie Mitchell and critic Ken Tucker help show some outsider perspective on Green's work, his impact, and helps show to a degree what he left behind when he decided to find his faith.
The jewel of the film is watching Green perform, which we see in two locations and from a performance perspective two different approaches. The first one early on is at an Air Force base just outside Washington D.C. Green does some of the secular material, and he delivers it with a lot of gusto. But he introduces the gospel songs and man, he just belts them out, including a version of "Nearer My God To Thee" that captures a certain kind of energy that Green was capturing before he was doing the gospel songs. It's similar yet different, less sexual, more spiritual, though both seem to be present.
The other performance is in the Full Gospel Tabernacle church in Memphis, Tennessee, which Green purchased and became a minister in (he is now a bishop there, and still performs service occasionally now in his 70s). The energy from within the service both in the sermon and the song is captivating, and as the service goes on you can see the energy Green puts into it, as he sweats through the suit he wore in the pulpit. It is a sight to behold, it's one of a man who puts everything into the music, whether it's to communicate love of a woman or love of God, it's fascinating to experience on a lesser stated stage like these.
The interviews are very good and Green's frank nature in discussing his past and present is a breath of fresh air, primarily because there isn't a staged conflict to communicate. His eloquence about his sins and his spirituality captivates, while he has a guitar in hand, strumming it on occasion to the songs that made him famous. The music is great, but just as good are the interviews, but in a more modest fashion. Mugge lets the words speak for themselves and the less is more approach for it works superbly.
Even having some idea about Al Green's life and his faith, Gospel According to Al Green does a magnificent job of communicating the motivations that make you understand and appreciate it all the more. Green returned to secular music and still performs on occasion along with the previously mentioned Sunday service, showing us all that despite the fame and fortune, he's a human being looking for balance in his life, as we all are.The Blu-ray:
MVD says that a 4K transfer was done for this Blu-ray and it uses the AVC codec for the film but at the end of the day, a film shot on 16mm cameras is only going to have so much beauty associated to it. Black levels fluctuate and there is image noise in a few areas along with copious amounts of grain. It's not going to win any restoration prizes, but it does come through as a solid presentation of this film.The Sound:
Two-channel LPCM for the film which is good, and captures the sound better than I expected. A minor call and response between Green and his drummer on a song has the drums sounding clean and a small bit of power to them. The guitar sounds clean as do the vocals of Green and the backup singers, and despite the aforementioned issue of source material limitations, the resulting soundtrack is clean, with a touch of fidelity and dynamic range, and I liked listening to it.Extras:
A lot of things are thrown onto this set. There is an extended song from the church service (4:51), and "Soul and Spirit" (16:51) is a recent interview with Mugge where he talks about his thoughts on the film and Green's career, and shares some thoughts on some of the moments in it, and even tosses out takes on a visual style choice or two. It's a better piece than I was expecting. The climax of the church service is included too (1:05:47), along with some audio from the Air Force base concer (3:21). An interview with Green follows (1:32:50) that covers much of the same ground as that in the film, but includes more nuance on the evolution of his spirituality and music, and his approach to some of it. Green also recorded an answering machine message for Mugge back in the day and its inclusion is nice and a touch humorous (:20).Final Thoughts:
Gospel According to Al Green includes a lot of candor from the subject of the film and a lot of what made the subject of the film so renowned. Both choices were the right ones considering the background of some really great soul and gospel music is the main stage and Al Green is the star. Technically the disc is pretty good and includes a ton of worthy complements to the film, which tells the story of a man trying to find his way, and happens to have one of the best singing voices of the last half century. Whether you know Green's life or not, whether you know his music or not, you owe it to yourself to check this film out.