Review by Sean Boelman
When one thinks about documentaries focusing on the recording of a specific album, it’s often in connection to a band that they are already a fan of. Stay Prayed Up doesn’t really have the crutch of an enthusiastic fanbase to fall back on — instead, it tries (mostly successfully) to explore the universal power of its subject’s voice.
The film follows Lena Mae Perry and her gospel group, The Branchettes, as they record their first-ever live album. Within the gospel community, Perry and The Branchettes are legendary, and their impact on Black gospel music is profund, but their names are likely to be unfamiliar to anyone who doesn’t follow that genre of music.
Like the similar movie Amazing Grace that came out a few years back, this film tries to capture the power of a religious experience in a documentary. And while Mrs. Perry’s voice is undeniably amazing, this movie doesn’t have the benefit of having one of the most iconic singers of all time at its helm.
The film does benefit from its characterization — letting us get to know Perry and The Branchettes outside of their live recording sessions allows us a glimpse into why their music speaks to them personally. It gives the movie that added touch of humanity that goes a long way in connecting audiences who might not get the appeal of gospel music to the story.
Indeed, we spend so much of the film seeing these people go through what is apparently a genuine religious experience, but simply observing this recording session probably isn’t going to be enough for most audiences. There is no denying that we are watching something special occur, but how that translates to the viewer from afar is less clear.
Thankfully, the movie doesn’t take an overly preachy perspective. Even though there is a heavy religious connotation to all of the music featured in the film, it never feels as if we are simply watching a sermon. But for those audiences who are more religious, this somewhat distant approach to gospel music might be a turn-off.
The ways in which the movie was shot also could have been improved. There is so much energy in this room, and that directors D.L. Anderson and Matthew Durning weren’t always able to capture that is disappointing. They shot the recording in a shockingly straightforward manner, and the result almost feels too academic.
There are certainly some good things about Stay Prayed Up, but for the most part, it’s rather unaffecting. It’s not a poorly-made film by any means, and it’s interesting enough, although for a movie that lives or dies by its power, leaving the audience unstirred feels like a disappointment.
Stay Prayed Up is now in theaters and hits VOD on July 5.