The subtitle for “Say It Loud” is so fundamentally accurate that it’s scary: This is indeed a celebration of black music, one that skims over historical facts in favor of recognizing the groundbreakers, how black music has functioned in society at large and how modern performers see history’s effect on their own work. “Ray (Charles) and James Brown (opened up) a whole new avenue,” George Benson says, his statement being ridiculously obvious to students of black music, but something that everybody who cares a lick about pop music should be reminded of over and over.
Five episodes are broken down thematically and, without narration, they chronicle black musicians as they face racism, learn how to take care of business matters, merge the secular and spiritual and so on. The talking heads offer thoughts and observances more than anecdotes and facts; the historical timeline laid out by directors Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen is understood rather than overtly stated.
Program hits highlights and for the most part concentrates on individuals. It’s not as grand in scope as, say, Ken Burns’ “Jazz” or similar rock ‘n’ roll docus, but this isn’t concerned with whys and whens or even the “Behind the Music” dramas for which VH1 has become known. At times, that’s troublesome, particularly in the third episode in which performers discuss their use of gospel music. For Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and Brother Ray, there were life-changing incidents that led to musical decisions — these are never discussed.
Collection of historical footage is stunning, from Sam Cooke on TV to early rap videos to James Brown in a variety of settings. Certain interview subjects — Brian McKnight, Gladys Knight, Wyclef Jean, B.B. King — display keen insights and well-rounded knowledge of all types of music and, especially, the impact of music made by black musicians. Rev. Al Sharpton and college professor Gerald Early are onscreen far too much. LL Cool J’s explanation of the choices a young musicians faces when they get their first fat paycheck is priceless.
Rhino Records is releasing a five-CD black music overview to complement the series. Arranged chronologically and with an emphasis on music over spoken word, it documents this history in a more traditional format and hits one high note after another.