‘Stay Prayed Up’ Review: Spreading the Gospel of Love


In the opening moments of “Stay Prayed Up,” the plain-spoken and pleasant documentary about a gospel music ensemble, a young boy waves the viewer inside a bright-white church that almost glows in the North Carolina sunshine. There, the Branchettes are both performing and recording a live album. The smiling kid promises that the proceedings are “going to be churchy” and that you might find some friends inside.

The film can’t be called world-historical or any such thing. But the group, led by Lena Mae Perry (and backed by instrumentalists called the Guitarheels), is inspiring in the ways of both shaking the rafters and invoking peace in the valley.

Perry, a singer in her 80s and the guiding light of the Branchettes, is a presence both formidable and gentle. A powerful alto, she founded the group in the early 1970s with two now-departed comrades, Ethel Elliott and Mary Ellen Bennett. The trio forged a distinctive three-part harmony and eventually built a following in the state.

Perry was raised on a tobacco farm, and proudly recalls her expertise at tying up tobacco leaves. The work wasn’t hard, she insists; it was just what her family did. She recalls her experiences of racism with a similar equanimity, no doubt a result of her religiosity — a belief in the gospel of love that appears profound but not inordinately dogmatic.

Her group now encompasses several generations. The Guitarheels’s leader, Phil Cook, a pianist from Wisconsin, sheepishly admits that his first exposure to the music was via the 1993 Whoopi Goldberg comedy “Sister Act 2.”

This movie is directed by D.L. Anderson and Matthew Durning and was produced under the banner of Spiritual Helpline, which is also the name of the record label, started by Cook, that made the Branchettes’ live album. As self-promotional ventures go, this is an effort of integrity and good will, and packs in a lot of spirited music that more or less sells itself.

Stay Prayed Up
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 10 minutes. In theaters.

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