Judge Victor Valdivia once thought he felt the spirit in him, but it turned out to be something else. Long story short, he'll never eat at the discount sushi joint again.
Be Prepared to Praise His Name
…but not so much BET's.
Facts of the Case
Celebration of Gospel: Spirit in Song is a multi-artist concert that originally aired on Black Entertainment Television on January 25, 2008. Artists from various artists, both from the gospel and pop fields are joined by actors and activists and winners from the singing contest show Sunday Best to give praise.
Celebration of Gospel could have served as a great showcase for gospel music. So many titans in rock and R&B, from Elvis Presley to Aretha Franklin, got their start singing gospel and the form has influenced generations of musicians and producers. This could have been a wonderful, thrilling look at talented singers and performers in their prime. Instead, it's only rarely as enthralling as it should have been.
Like far too many BET productions, this show winds up coming off as sloppy and disorganized. Jesse Jackson walks out to deliver a parable that doesn't make much sense and doesn't really relate to the song that follows. The audience responds with polite but confused applause. Actor Henry Simmons delivers another speech about gospel that is so forgettable that the crowd doesn't even react. Why weren't these parts edited out of the final broadcast? Why does the show shortchange the best performers in favor of mediocre ones? And why are the performances so wildly uneven, ranging from sublime to abysmal?
The best performances, not surprisingly, come from the two performers who have talent and charisma to burn: John Legend and Patti LaBelle. John Legend, seated alone at his piano, sings a version of "Show Me" that's stunning. LaBelle, always recognized for her fiery performances, goes for a more subtle and soulful approach with "Walk Around Heaven" and succeeds. Even at her softest, her talent can still fill a room.
At the other end of the spectrum, Kirk Franklin gets two songs, and his renditions can be called "performances" only in the loosest definition of the word. In both, he simply runs around onstage and jumps up and down pumping his fists while his background singers do all the actual singing. Every other bar or so he simply yells, "Aw, yeah!" or "Feel it!" into his microphone, just to remind people that he's the star. To be fair, he does put more effort into his second song—not in singing, but in outfitting his singers and musicians all in T-shirts emblazoned with the title and release date of his forthcoming album. It would seem that a show supposedly dedicated to spiritual uplift should be above such crass commercialism, but clearly, the Lord works in mysterious ways.
The other performances are not as insufferable, but are also not very compelling, either. Too many of the other singers are competent (if pedestrian) but their songs are the kind of bland MOR pop that only counts as gospel because it mentions the Lord a few times. Also, for being as bland as they are, too many of these songs go on for way too long. Bebe Winans is a gospel legend and his versions of "I Feel Like Going On" and "I Got a Feeling" (not the Beatles tune) are both lovely, but each also goes on for a few minutes longer than necessary. The only other notable moment occurs when Pastor Shirley Caesar performs "Never" and delivers one of the only old-school gospel performances, complete with choir. She even takes the time to relate a personal tragedy that occurred to her just days before the show aired, a touch of personal emotion that is sorely missing with too many of the other artists.
The biggest disappointment comes during the medley of "Spirit of the Lord" and "Loud, Loud." The song is performed by singer Fred Hammond, who is joined by the finalists and winner of BET's gospel singing contest show Sunday Best. The winner, Crystal Aikin, is so far ahead of the others in sheer talent and energy that it's easy to see why she won. But she only gets to sing barely one verse of "Spirit of the Lord." Given how badly she overshadows Hammond (who is devoid of personality) and the other finalists (who are not even in the same league as her), she really should have gotten a whole solo showcase for herself.
As with some of its other variety show DVDs, BET has once again continued with its irritating technique of not providing menu screens that allow viewers to skip to a specific musical performance. John Legend fans, for instance, will have to use the fast-forward button until they get to his song. The extras are not especially illuminating. "Access Gospel" (11:08) follows Jermaine Sellers, one of the other Sunday Best finalists, as he interviews the other performers and goes behind the scenes of the show. It's typical EPK fluff with no real insight into the gospel community or how performers such as LaBelle or Legend use their gospel background in their mainstream music. "Wise Words with Pastor Shirley Caesar" (3:58) is an interview with Caesar, a legendary gospel mainstay. The interview is much too short to reveal much of value, however. Completely missing is any footage from Sunday Best, which could have explained how the finalists competed and how the winner was chosen. The full-frame video and stereo audio are satisfactory.
It's inexplicable why BET chose to showcase the most mediocre performers rather than the ones who could help make viewers who are unfamiliar with gospel more interested. Legend, LaBelle, and Aikin deserve far more than the slim showcases they get, and the show should have been planned and edited better to cut out all of the awkward and tedious bits. This really should been much better than it is.
Guilty of being a disappointment considering some of the talent involved.
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