Robert Mugge’s Gospel According to Al Green, recently issued by Acorn Media in a 25th anniversary edition, is an understated epic that does justice to the genius of its flamboyant subject, now 62, most recently in the public eye for the double Grammy-winner, Lay it Down (Blue Note), and a ferocious performance on this month?s Grammy telecast on which he emphatically demonstrated that he can still hit all the notes. Positioned between such keen portraits of sui generis musical eccentrics?Sun Ra (A Joyful Noise, 1980), Gil Scott-Heron (Black Wax, 1982), Ruben Blades (The Return of Ruben Blades, 1985), and Sonny Rollins (Saxophone Colossus, 1986) — that comprised the bulk of Mugge?s work at the time, Gospel foreshadows Mugge?s exhaustive, still ongoing exploration of the various food groups of American roots music, specifically the Mississippi blues and Louisiana vernaculars, in a series of films since the pathbreaking 1991 documentary, Deep Blues. Granted an extraordinary candid interview by Green, only a few years removed from his well-publicized transition from secular soul superstar to ordained minister who would perform only sacred music, Mugge wisely makes him the primary voice within the narrative. He relates his life story in vivid language and punctuates it with an equally extroverted gestural vocabulary, describing the origins of his musical aesthetic and trademark sound, retelling in detail the events that transformed him from a Saturday Night Function sensualist to a master of the Sunday Sermon. Commentary from Willie Mitchell, Green?s early producer, contextualizes the Reverend?s recollections, but Mugge also provides copious performance footage, climaxing the 94-minute film with a spellbinding marathon sermon in which Green, celebrating the seventh anniversary of the Memphis church he purchased in 1976, delivers the homily, simmers through songs of praise, and ascends to tongue-speak, as Mugge puts it in the Directors’ Remarks section, “with fire coming out of his mouth.”
About the Author
Ted Panken writes extensively about jazz for various publications, including DownBeat and Jazziz, as well as the website www.jazz.com. He's presented it on WKCR-FM in New York City since 1985. He won the 2007 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his article "Smalls Universe," published by DownBeat.