An impressive number of musicians have hailed from North Carolina: the blues guitarist Etta Baker, the funk empress Betty Davis, the High Priestess of Soul Nina Simone and the electrifying wordsmith Rapsody are just a few of them. With Stay Prayed Up, an enthusiastic documentary directed by D.L. Anderson and Matt Durning, the 82-year-old gospel singer Lena Mae Perry will assume her place among these greats.
Stay Prayed Up, which premiered at Telluride and has continued its fest travels with screenings at DOC NYC, chronicles the journey Perry and her band, The Branchettes, undertook to record their first live album. It’s a concert film wrapped in biography and an appreciation for a sacred and beguiling genre. The power of gospel music comes alive here, and the doc’s subjects, the practitioners of this fervent form, keep it engaging.
Stay Prayed Up
Spiritual and tender.
The documentary begins at the end, which is to say the opening moments of the film capture Perry and the other members of The Branchettes gearing up to put on their live performance. “Welcome to the main event,” a cherubic child says to the camera, pointing to the white church building in the background. “If you guys love church, this event is really churchy. If you guys just want to watch the fun and check up on how your friends are doing, most of your friends might even be in there.” His improvised introduction warmly welcomes us into the world of Long Branch Disciples of Christ Church in Johnston County, North Carolina. The next scenes are visual treats: close-up shots of a stained-glass window, a wood-encased keyboard adorned with blue and white flowers, Bibles tucked in baskets behind each pew, and clasped hands, those of the performers, during a prayer led by Perry.
The music is introduced early and powerfully. The film moves from prayer to the band performing onstage. Perry, dressed in her Sunday best (a silver skirt and matching jacket, gleaming white shoes, dainty pearl earrings and hair perfectly coiffed), belts into the microphone while bobbing from side to side. Her sonorous voice, backed by a spirited piano, animates the crowd. The joy is self-evident, contagious even. This — the ability to awaken a crowd — is her magic.
Now, magic does not mean she’s superhuman. Stay Prayed Up balances clips of Perry singing with stories about her life. Born in Benson, North Carolina, Perry founded The Branchettes with her friends Ethel Elliot and Mary Ellen Bennett in 1973. They met as members of the Long Branch Disciples of Christ senior choir before striking out on their own. “They were very powerful singers, those three ladies,” says Wilbur Tharpe, the band’s jovial pianist. They could harmonize, and they would tour around the country — and once even to Northern Ireland — to perform their hymns. Archival footage of Perry and her groupmates inspire the same chilling feeling as the more recent clips. She always, it seemed, possessed a round and vibrant voice.
The film’s most affecting moments, though, are the ones spent with Perry going about her life. Through them, a different portrait of her emerges — a gutsy woman guided by a spirit of determination, community and a good time.
The American guitarist Phil Cook is one of the people in Perry’s circle — which includes Tharpe, her kids, her friend Dr. Hattie Lofton and her current groupmates — who add to the charming octogenarian’s anecdotes. They tell us about Mae’s Country Kitchen, the restaurant she owned. There was no judgment within its four walls, which allowed the space to double as a community center. Perry would serve up food and a kind word to whomever needed to hear it. That graciousness extended into her personal life, and the film features a particularly moving sequence in which Perry makes her weekly calls to friends. Sitting on the porch of her home in Raleigh, she flips through her phone book — filled with numbers and names — and meticulously dials the digits. If they can’t be reached, she leaves a message.
Perry’s generosity in sharing details of her life confirms the power of her faith. She speaks freely about losing her eldest son, who died in combat overseas (she doesn’t go into which war he fought in), and about wanting to help others feel less alone in their darkest moments. Her outlook on the power of gospel music is both practical and mystifying. She sings to reach people who might not otherwise find their way to God, to commune with those already there, and to share with anyone in need of its energy.
Her naturally absorbing presence might explain some of Stay Prayed Up’s spare aesthetic and straightforward structure. The documentary leans into an almost plain visual language, with unfussy shots, as it chronicles the week leading up to the recording of the live album. The directors make smart use of the community as a knowledge source. Although these decisions make sense, a part of me wanted the doc to broaden its community and explore more of North Carolina, a state with a rich music history. I would have loved to learn more about the groups The Branchettes interacted with in their early years, and how gospel shaped this state and its people.