Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...
Marvel Hopes to Release a New Netflix Series Every 6 Months - Including 'Luke Cage' & 'The Defenders' of Course Marvel Hopes to Release a New Netflix Series Every 6 Months - Including 'Luke Cage' & 'The Defenders' of Course Queen Latifah Will Play Wiz and Mary J. Blige Is Evillene in NBC's Musical Production of 'The Wiz' Queen Latifah Will Play Wiz and Mary J. Blige Is Evillene in NBC's Musical Production of 'The Wiz' NBC Rethinks Broadcast Runs for New Summer Comedies, 'Mr. Robinson' & 'The Carmichael Show' NBC Rethinks Broadcast Runs for New Summer Comedies, 'Mr. Robinson' & 'The Carmichael Show' Here's the List of Films & TV Series Coming to (and Leaving) Netflix's Streaming Library in August Here's the List of Films & TV Series Coming to (and Leaving) Netflix's Streaming Library in August 'Key & Peele' Will End After Its Current Season 'Key & Peele' Will End After Its Current Season Michael B. Jordan Adds Adaptation of Acclaimed Nonfiction Bestseller 'Just Mercy' to His Slate Michael B. Jordan Adds Adaptation of Acclaimed Nonfiction Bestseller 'Just Mercy' to His Slate MSNBC Decides: Touré Is Out, Rev. Al Stays (For Now) MSNBC Decides: Touré Is Out, Rev. Al Stays (For Now) Disney Channel & Disney XD Casting Directors Holding Online Casting Call for Diverse Actors, Age 10-17 Disney Channel & Disney XD Casting Directors Holding Online Casting Call for Diverse Actors, Age 10-17 Revisiting Spike Lee's Perplexing 'She Hate Me' on Its 11th Anniversary Revisiting Spike Lee's Perplexing 'She Hate Me' on Its 11th Anniversary Oprah Winfrey Presents Landmark 7-Night Event Series 'Belief' Premiering October 18 (Trailer) Oprah Winfrey Presents Landmark 7-Night Event Series 'Belief' Premiering October 18 (Trailer) Watch 5 Clips From TV One Original Movie 'Runaway Island' - Premieres This Saturday, July 25 Watch 5 Clips From TV One Original Movie 'Runaway Island' - Premieres This Saturday, July 25 Samira Wiley to Co-Star in Film Based on Kitty Genovese 1964 Murder Samira Wiley to Co-Star in Film Based on Kitty Genovese 1964 Murder MTV Has Made Its 'White People' Documentary Available Online - Watch It Here MTV Has Made Its 'White People' Documentary Available Online - Watch It Here Check Out the Official Theatrical Trailer for Stanley Nelson’s 'The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution' Check Out the Official Theatrical Trailer for Stanley Nelson’s 'The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution' Starz Announces Return Date for Original Series 'Power' + New Key Art + Trailer Starz Announces Return Date for Original Series 'Power' + New Key Art + Trailer Why Was Janet Hubert (Aunt Viv) Really Replaced on 'Fresh Prince of Bel-Air'? Buzzfeed Investigates Why Was Janet Hubert (Aunt Viv) Really Replaced on 'Fresh Prince of Bel-Air'? Buzzfeed Investigates Third 'Best Man' Movie Gets a Title, an Official 2016 Release Date & A Most Unexpected Wedding Third 'Best Man' Movie Gets a Title, an Official 2016 Release Date & A Most Unexpected Wedding Aaron McGruder Finally Explains Why He Left 'The Boondocks' Aaron McGruder Finally Explains Why He Left 'The Boondocks' Netflix Explains Why It Doesn't Always Have That Film Or TV Show You Really Want To See (Video) Netflix Explains Why It Doesn't Always Have That Film Or TV Show You Really Want To See (Video) Tichina Arnold Says She Talked To Martin Lawrence About Doing A 'Martin' Movie... Tichina Arnold Says She Talked To Martin Lawrence About Doing A 'Martin' Movie...

DOC NYC Review: 'Harlem Street Singer' (The Little-Known Story of Musician Reverend Gary Davis)

Shadow and Act By Zeba Blay | Shadow and Act November 20, 2013 at 4:18PM

DOC NYC Review: 'Harlem Street Singer' (The Little-Known Story of Musician Reverend Gary Davis)
0
Harlem Street Singer

You may see directors Simeon Hutner and Trevor Laurence’s documentary Harlem Street Singer, and you may wonder: how many? How many unsung heroes of blues and rock n’roll, black musicians who played instruments like they were extensions of their limbs, who wrote and performed songs that set the standard for those who came after them, how many have been forgotten? How many, their songs living on only through the white rock musicians who covered, copied, and profited from their distinct styles, have lived and died without full acknowledgement of their contributions? 


In a way, the guitar player and singer Reverend Gary Davis (the subject and titular Harlem street singer) is emblematic of those forgotten musicians in the way that Elvis is emblematic of the mainstream artists who benefited from black music by not actually being black. Davis, a Blues Hall of Fame inductee who influenced countless rock and folk musicians including Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, was a man who during the latter half of his life enjoyed a modicum of fame amongst those in the know but today, as the documentary reveals, is a mere musical history footnote.

But know this: the film is not a bleak but joyful portrait of a talented, charismatic, and fascinating figure, a man as entertaining and complex as the furious and innovative guitar-picking that became so synonymous with his style of playing. Hutner and Laurence employ interviews with music historians and biographer who explain Davis’s impoverished childhood in the deep south, his time as a blind street singer in 1920s North Carolina, his eventual conversion to Christianity which contributed to the string of prolific blues and gospel songs that he produced throughout his lifetime. 

Students and admirers, too, are interviewed - people like Bob Weir of The Grateful Dead, and Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary. It’s through these interviews, particularly with Davis’s student and professional guitarist Woody Mann, that we truly begin to get a sense of a man who was at once deeply religious but also conflicted by a love of women and whiskey. 

While his students may lend to the overall impression of Davis, though, it’s him, and particularly his music that carries much of the documentary, which for the most part has a straightforward and unvaried approach to storytelling. Davis, though, tells us all we need to know, through beautiful archival footage of him performing his most affecting songs, including gospel tunes like ‘12 Gates to the City’ and ‘There’s a Destruction in This Land’ or blues songs including ‘Candyman’ and ‘Cocaine.’ 

It’s only when we see him play, hear him sing howling and growling and then suddenly thinning his voice to only a whisper, that we fully understand the extent of his talent and ultimately the extent of his influence of the musicians of his day. Much of this footage of him performing won’t be found on a YouTube search, beautiful grainy black and white reels of Davis seated alone, dark glasses on, holding his guitar like some men hold their lovers. Even rarer are audio recordings of Davis talking about his life, or teaching his students with all the idiosyncratic charm that we usually attribute to geniuses. 

What Harlem Street Singer may lack in overall inventiveness it more than makes up for with a sincere admiration for its subject that a viewer can’t help but begin to share by the end of the documentary. Hutner and Laurence have done a fine job of introducing Davis to those who may not know him, of remembering him with those who do, and of celebrating the legacy of just one of the numerous musicians whose talent and influence have shaped rock ‘n roll music as we know it today.


Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory, and co-hosts the podcast Two Brown Girls. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.

This article is related to: Festival Dispatch


Shadow & ActNewsletter