From the opening frame of Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll it is clear that we are watching a rare phenomenon. This documentary, by celebrated writer, producer and director Mick Csáky, is a captivating look at a singer/musician credited with influencing rock-and-roll’s iconic figures like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley and many more. That Tharpe was African-American, bisexual and a world-wide celebrity from the 1940-60s makes this story even more awe-inspiring.
The documentary follows a linear narrative and uses standard documentary features like interviews with Tharpe’s friends and colleagues from the music industry. That works well because the person at the center of the story is—as Bob Dylan fondly calls her—such “a force of nature.” The way she attacked the guitar and commanded the stage demonstrates her incredible love for showbiz and her perseverance to succeed in a business dominated by men.
Halfway through we learn that Tharpe was bisexual and lived as openly as she possibly could in that period. Her close friendship with singer Marie Knight is discussed briefly after which the documentary respectfully moves on to other matters in Tharpe’s life.
Chock full of fascinating, rare footage from Tharpe’s live performances and blessed by her clear, enchanting, and powerful voice, Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll is the most satisfying 52 minutes you might spend in front of a screen in a long time to come, and be tempted to rewind right away and watch it all over again. It was originally commissioned and screened by BBC4 in the U.K. The edited version showed up in 2013, 2014 and 2015 as part of the American Masters series on PBS.
Watch it here.