The problem I had with soul music is that by the time I was listening to pop music actively in the 1970s it was becoming obvious that there was a huge difference between a lot of what was called soul music and music that had soul. Soul had always been smoother and slicker than its cousin funk, but as the '70s progressed it lost whatever edge it might have had and degenerated into middle of the road sludge with all the sexuality of the suburban shopping malls it was being pumped into. The idea that anyone could consider what Hall & Oates sang as being in anyway related to the music of Isaac Hayes and James Brown was almost as nauseating as equating Pat Boone with Little Richard because he covered "Tutti Frutti" (to this day one of pop music's biggest abominations).
Of course one of the problems was the continued lack of integration of pop radio, as there was some music that was still considered too "black" to be played on the mainstream pop stations. Growing up in lily white Toronto, Ontario of the 1970s you hardly ever heard James Brown or Isaac Hayes on the radio, and that's probably the reason that I never even heard of Al Green until the Talking Heads covered his great song "Take Me To The River" on their album More Songs About Buildings And Food. Even their minimalist version couldn't disguise the song's great mixture of soul and gospel and set me to wondering who this guy Al Green was.
Well, of course Al Green still is; in fact he's just released a new album, Lay It Down, a collaborative effort with a variety of hip-hop and soul singers from today's generation of musicians. While Al has been releasing soul records since the late 1980s there was another reason for me not being familiar with him back in the 1970s — he had stopped doing pop music to concentrate on performing gospel. Now I had vaguely known about his change of life for some time now, but I didn't really know any of the details. Twenty-five years ago American documentary film maker Robert Mugge released Gospel According To Al Green that talked to Green about that issue, and in celebration of the movie's twenty-fifth anniversary Acorn Media will be releasing a special edition DVD version of the film on January 27, 2009.
As well as including the original ninety minute documentary, the DVD also contains special features like a ninety minute audio interview with Al Green and extended cuts of him performing and preaching. You see Al wasn't just fooling around with his born again stuff, nor experimenting like Dylan. Al became a Baptist minister, bought himself a church, and began leading people in worship every Sunday. There's been plenty of folk who have graduated from the church to secular music, but it's a rare person who feels the calling so strong that they make the reverse journey.
While the movie includes interviews with Al's first producer, Willie Mitchell of Memphis Hi Records, and Al himself, that deal with how his career as a soul singer began and talks about the recording of his first albums, when it comes to the matter of Al's conversion we aren't given very much information. When Mugge asks Green about how it happened he simply says that he woke up in the middle of the night in a hotel room praising God. It sounds like he had some sort of miraculous conversion while asleep and avoids mention of any events in his personal life that might have influenced his decision.
In an article entitled "Scared Straight" Robert Brunner describes how in 1974 Green's girlfriend Mary Woodson burst into his bathroom while he was in the shower and dumped a pot of scalding grits on his back, burning him so badly he was in hospital for several months. She then ran to his bedroom where she took a pistol registered in Al's name and shot and killed herself. While Al's conversion had happened a year prior to those events, it was shortly after that he made the complete break from pop music and switched over entirely to gospel and two years later was ordained as a minister.
While it's understandable that Al Green would want to distance himself from those events, it's not for a documentary filmmaker to leave out information on his subject as significant as that. Yet, instead of researching his subject, or even checking out a few other sources or news reports, it seems like Mugge decided to rely on Green and his intimates as his only sources of information. The result is that what appears to be an intimate portrait is actually somewhat sanitized.
On the plus side there are plenty of opportunities to watch Al Green perform on this disc and whether he's delivering a sermon praising God or singing there's no denying the man is an amazing performer. His voice has an incredible fluidity that allows it to slide up and down the scale with ease and sound equally full and expressive no matter how high or how low he goes. You can also see how he must have been a magnet for women when he was a pop performer, for although he lacks the unbridled sexuality of a James Brown, he has a smooth charisma that is nigh on irresistible.
Ironically it was only a short while after the release of this movie twenty-five years ago that Al Green started to return to performing secular music with the release of his duet with Annie Lennox, "Put A Little Love In Your Heart," for the 1988 film Scrooge. Since then he has gradually eased back into performing popular music again. His achievements in both pop and gospel music haven't been unrecognized either as he's been inducted into both the Rock And Roll and Gospel Music Halls of Fame as well as receiving a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
While some of the footage in the documentary is a little grainy, the sound quality, especially for Green's performances are fine. As a record of the man's life Gospel According To Al Green might not be the most accurate or complete, but what it does do is provide a wonderful opportunity to see Al Green perform when he was still at the peak of his powers. Watching him perform makes it very clear that no matter what the reasons were for his conversion, being born again, there can be denying the sincerity of his beliefs and the joy he brings to people as a preacher and a singer. In spite of any flaws this movie may have, it proves that without a doubt Al Green's music got soul!