Lena Mae Perry, Phil Cook, Wilbur Tharpe
D.L. Anderson, Matthew Durning
“I’m not a show off when it comes with dealing with God. He’s got to be in the midst or I need to go somewhere and sit down.” - Lena Mae Perry
I have no doubt that the spirit of Jimmy Stewart himself was dancing in the aisles during Stay Prayed Up, a joy-filled, foot-stomping good time of a motion picture that picked up the Jimmy Stewart Legacy Award during the 30th Anniversary Heartland International Film Festival in Indianapolis.
Stay Prayed Up follows the legendary gospel group The Branchettes and their fiery, spirit-filled matron of over 50 years Miss Lena Mae Perry. The film follows the group as they perform their first ever fully live album for Phil Cook, an enthusiastic devotee of The Branchettes whose look of adoration for Sister Perry ensures the white, Wisconsin-born gospel enthusiast is going to do whatever it takes to capture the vibrance, spirit, and absolute surrender of The Branchettes.
Started out of Long Branch Disciples of Christ, The Branchettes have lifted hearts and spirits throughout the South and as far away as Ireland. Just watching Sister Perry before, during, and after shows, it's apparent that she bonds with anyone and everyone wherever she goes and whatever she does. She's quick to share the musical spotlight and there doesn't seem to be an ounce of ego projecting out of that amazing, fireball of a voice of hers.
At a mere 73 minutes or so, co-directors D.L. Anderson and Matthew Durning don't dig particularly deep into The Branchettes history here, instead focusing their lens on the here and now with occasional photos and clips from those formative years. Sister Perry surrounds herself with friends and family, many of whom she's known for years including the remarkable piano player and song writer Wilbur Tharpe, whose health is a key factor in the story that unfolds here. Yet, this is a story that is never less than completely joy-filled as Sister Perry and The Branchettes shout praise and prayers, little bits of wisdom and profound truths.
As the story unfolded, I'll confess that I began to worry that Stay Prayed Up would turn into yet another white do-gooder film yet Anderson and Durning clearly understood where the lens needed to focus and, if anything, it's Sister Perry who saves Cook's musical soul.
Definitely one of the more entertaining and spirited films to screen during Heartland this year, Stay Prayed had its world premiere at Telluride Film Festival and has screnings coming up at Virginia Film Festival, New Orleans Film Festival, DOC NYC, and Cucalorus Film Festival. Still available as a virtual screening for a couple days at Heartland, Stay Prayed Up is a film you won't want to miss.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic