In New Film About Gospel Pioneers The Clark Sisters, The Music Comes First

Apr 17, 2020
Originally published on April 17, 2020 8:31 am

The Clark Sisters — Jackie, Dorinda, Denise, Twinkie and Karen — were one of the most important gospel groups of the 20th century. The sisters grew up in Detroit and learned to sing from their mother, Mattie Moss Clark, a renowned gospel singer in her own right. With her help, the Clark Sisters went on to win three Grammy awards and become the top-selling female gospel group of all time. Simply put, they changed the sound of modern gospel music.

The story of the ground-breaking group and the matriarch who pushed them forward is the subject of a new Lifetime movie called The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel. The film differs from most musical biopics in one notable way: Director Christine Swanson insisted that the women playing the sisters in the film be able to sing — really sing. Acting experience was less of a requirement.

"Because we're dealing with the legendary Clark Sisters who have an enduring creative, spiritual legacy in music and culture — and who also happen to be from my hometown — I felt I had to raise the bar in terms of telling their story," Swanson says. "I thought the best way to go about doing that was to go about hiring real gospel singers."

NPR's Rachel Martin spoke to Christine Swanson and Aunjanue Ellis, who plays Mattie Moss Clark in the film, about emphasizing the music to tell the Clark Sisters' story, the group's ongoing legacy and the impact their mother had on changing the trajectory of gospel music in the United States.

"She was singular in her vision at the time ... for the place of women in the [Church of God in Christ] tradition," Ellis says. "And she was doing all of this at a time when women were expected to hold positions, yeah, but not wield this kind of power in the church."

Listen to the radio version in the audio link above.

NPR's Vince Pearson produced and edited the audio of this interview for broadcast. Cyrena Touros and editorial intern Jon Lewis adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

They had a calling, a mother who demanded perfection and voices that made people want to stand up and praise a higher power.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CLARK SISTERS: FIRST LADIES OF GOSPEL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As The Clark Sisters, singing) You brought the sunshine in my life. You are the lifeline. You are the lifeline. You brought the sunshine.

MARTIN: They were known as The Clark Sisters - Jacky, Dorinda, Denise, Twinkie and Karen. They grew up in Detroit and learned to sing from their mother, Mattie Moss Clark. Under her direction, The Clark Sisters would go on to win three Grammys. They became the top-selling female gospel group of all time, and they changed the sound of modern gospel music.

Their story is being told in a new movie on Lifetime. It is called "The Clark Sisters: First Ladies Of Gospel." And the thing you need to know about this movie and the rest of the music you're going to hear in this piece is that the singers are not the real Clark Sisters.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CLARK SISTERS: FIRST LADIES OF GOSPEL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As The Clark Sisters, singing) Hallelujah, hallelujah...

MARTIN: The film's director insisted that the women playing the sisters in the film be able to sing - really sing. And if they didn't have acting experience, then so be it. The music mattered too much.

Joining me now to talk about the film is the director Christine Swanson and Aunjanue Ellis, who plays the matriarch of the Clark family Dr. Mattie Moss Clark. Welcome to you both.

CHRISTINE SWANSON: Thank you.

AUNJANUE ELLIS: Thank you.

MARTIN: So Christine, lots of movies about singers would just have a really good actor lip sync the vocals. Wouldn't that have been easier?

SWANSON: That would have been easier, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So why was that insufficient in this case?

SWANSON: Well, in this case, because we're dealing with the legendary Clark Sisters who have an enduring creative spiritual legacy in music and culture and who also happened to be from my hometown, I felt I had to raise the bar in terms of telling their story. I thought the best way to go about doing that was to hire real gospel singers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CLARK SISTERS: FIRST LADIES OF GOSPEL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) What is the greatest praise to praise?

MARTIN: The family is anchored by the mother, Mattie Moss Clark, played by you, Aunjanue. Can you just tell us about this remarkable woman? Because she really was.

ELLIS: Dr. Mattie was a visionary. She was singular in her vision at the time for her daughters and her vision at the time for gospel music and singular in her vision for the place of women in the Church of God in Christ, which was the church that the Clark Sisters grew up in. She was a choir director. She was the choir director for the Church of God in Christ internationally and was doing all of this at a time when women were expected to hold positions, yeah, but not wield this kind of power in the church.

MARTIN: In the film, the audience is introduced to Mattie Moss Clark around 3 o'clock in the morning. Her household is asleep. Dr. Clark has woken up. She's got a song in her heart. She's got a melody in her head. And she needs everyone to wake up because they've got to learn it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CLARK SISTERS: FIRST LADIES OF GOSPEL")

ELLIS: (As Dr. Mattie Moss Clark) Come on, girls. Come on. Come on, come on, come on. I need to get this. The Lord put it in my heart, and I don't want to lose it - don't want to lose it. Niecy...

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO CHORD)

ELLIS: (As Dr. Mattie Moss Clark) ...You going to sing for the Lord, or you going to lay down for the devil? Get up.

MARTIN: I love that scene so much. And the girls are like - because it's clear this has happened before.

ELLIS: Common practice.

MARTIN: Inspiration would strike. And you had to act.

ELLIS: Yeah. I mean, they would talk about - The Clark Sisters talk about how they would be sleepy at school because they would be doing these midnight - literally middle-of-the-night rehearsals with their mother. So they were, in her mind - there was also an urgency to what she wanted to do. There was no time. No, I can't wait for you to wake up in the morning and come back home from school for us to practice this song because God has spoken to me now.

MARTIN: You talk about the patriarchy of the church at that time. I want to play another moment from the film. This is when the leaders of her church, who are all men, berate her after she has performed on television with her daughters at the Grammys.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CLARK SISTERS: FIRST LADIES OF GOSPEL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) That display on a secular stage for the world to see was a disgrace to the Church of God in Christ. It was a slap in our face.

ELLIS: (As Dr. Mattie Moss Clark) The Bible says go, ye, in all the lands and spread the gospel. That's what we were doing.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) The Bible also says pride cometh before the fall. You're getting big, Mattie. You're getting too big.

MARTIN: And even earlier in the movie, there's a scene with her then-husband when he turns to her and says something like, ambition doesn't look good on you. Was she a threat to the men in her life, Aunjanue?

ELLIS: I think she was a threat to a culture. I think it's a larger question. I don't think it's about individual men. And the church is - unfortunately, sometimes proves no better than the larger community of oppression and patriarchy that women exist in. But what I think is such a testament to The Clark Sisters and to Dr. Mattie is that, even under this oppressive, suppressive environment, they were creating some of the most consequential music of the 20th century.

MARTIN: Christine, do you remember hearing The Clark Sisters for the first time?

SWANSON: Well. Yeah - so I'm from Detroit. The cool thing is, like, everyone knew who The Clark Sisters were, and we were privy to their music. And what was particularly special to me was the fact that they were regular people in the community, as well.

MARTIN: So I mean, you had a personal connection to them. You share a sense of place with them. Why was it important for you to make this movie, to tell their story?

SWANSON: Because those women represent the women who raised me. I just felt that they needed a spotlight in a culture that may not deem them as important. You know, even though they're gospel legends - the music part is important, too, but they're also black women who are wives, mothers, sisters, the type of people that pretty much instilled in me everything that I deem important as a human being.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CLARK SISTERS: FIRST LADIES OF GOSPEL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As The Clark Sisters, singing) If you can't take it, you sure can't make it.

MARTIN: Director Christine Swanson and actress Aunjanue Ellis. Their new made-for-television movie is called "The Clark Sisters."

Christine, Aunjanue, thank you so much for talking with us.

SWANSON: Thank you.

ELLIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.