Gospel According to Al Green

Robert Mugge’s classic documentary out on Blu-ray

Jul. 10, 2017
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Al Green was a top-selling R&B singer in the early ‘70s—until he put away his past and threw himself wholeheartedly into a new life. Director Robert Mugge’s 1984 documentary, Gospel According to Al Green, looks closely at a uniquely talented musician who turned his gifts away from entertainment and toward enlightenment.

In African-American music, the dichotomy between sacred and secular, once strongly held, never prevented performers from jumping sides or going back and forth across the line. Unlike most of his predecessors, Green adjusted in a more holistic and stable way to what he came to believe was his higher mission. In 1976, three years after his conversion experience, he established the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis with himself as pastor. By the time Mugge shot his documentary, Rev. Al Green’s church was becoming a pilgrimage point for a certain strain of hipster, usually unwilling to accept the letter of his creed but eager to soak up the spirit.

As revealed in the interview Mugge conducted in a recording studio, Green grew up hearing mostly gospel music and something of its ecstasy clung to his voice in early hits such as “Let’s Stay Together” and “Tired of Being Alone.” He gave no reason for his 1973 plunge into religion—in his telling, reason had nothing to do with it. It was possession by the Holy Spirit as he surrendered to the irresistible.

Much of Mugge’s film is divided between that interview, a sweaty 1984 concert at a U.S. Air Force base and—most revealingly—a Sunday morning at Full Gospel Tabernacle. Green’s sermon was no dry homily but a half-sung, rhythmic improvisation whose riffs were drawn from Bible passages compounded by swift solos of exegesis. The alchemy of redemption was invoked by a masterful performer.

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