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June 24, 2005

American Masters: Raise Your Voices.

Hollywood Reporter (CA):

When documentarian Stanley Nelson started his project about the inspirational singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock, he didn't know that midway through it, their principal singer would decide to retire. Bernice Johnson Reagon, a founding member in 1973 of the quintet -- which took its name from a parable of a land so rich that when you cracked a rock sweet honey flowed -- told the others that she was leaving and that if they didn't wish to continue, she would fold the group. Of course, the others are going to keep on keeping on, as one of their song lyrics goes.

Anyway, Nelson turned on a dime and built the 90-minute telefilm around the last song in the group's last concert with Reagon, "The Old Ship of Zion." After that, "we weren't coming back onstage again, it would be our last time," one member says.

Listening to Reagon's powerful, unerring voice atop the others, you felt that Sweet Honey would have a hard rock to crack without her. When she hit a note, it stayed hit, and imagining this bunch without her was like thinking of Duke Ellington without Harry Carney. "Hers is a voice that will ring throughout the centuries," someone said, one of the many hyperbolic but plausible comments with which the sprawling film is studded.

As the recital of Sweet Honey's repertoire unfolded, from "Joan Little," their first hit about a woman who murdered her jailer when he made advances, to "The Ballad of Harry Moore," a classic about a Florida NAACP leader who lost his life and those of his family to a Christmas Eve bomber, the women showed a nice grasp of harmony and a great deal of skill in keeping things moving, the colorful timbres of the diverse voices blending uncannily and feeding the ear with sweet honey.

"You better learn these songs," admonishes Reagon, "you never know when you might be in a demonstration." Still, a relatively apolitical number, "Fulani Chant," provided the most fun of this last night. The beautiful Aisha Kahlil, in a dashing yellow gown, did a hands dance and chanted wordlessly (posing a problem for sign-language provider Shirley Childress Saxton) as the other members repeated their individual claves throughout like recorded bird calls.

Posted by acapnews at June 24, 2005 9:59 PM