Stay Prayed Up
(USA, 70 min.)
Dir. D.L. Anderson, Matthew Durning
Lena Mae Perry has soul in her lungs, heart, and kitchen. The surviving 83-year-old member of the North Carolina gospel group The Branchettes knows how to lift one’s spirits. Her story fuels this upbeat and easygoing portrait doc about the power of music, family, and prayer.
The film lets Perry tell her story on her own terms. She spins a yarn with the cadence of a woman reared on decades of sermons. She tells how The Branchettes came to be, originating at the Long Branch Disciple Church. Perry and her friend Ethel Elliott, who passed in 2004, summoned the power of soul when they were two of few people to show up for the choir. Shortly thereafter, The Branchettes were in demand bringing life to masses every weekend wherever churches were found.
Stay Prayed Up features many present-day scenes of Perry rallying congregations. Even in her eighties, her voice still packs awesome power. The film guarantees to boost audiences and shake the blues away. Perry’s ability to generate positive energy is palpable. Interviews with her pianist Wilbur Tharpe, to whom the film is dedicated, illustrate the family dynamic that fuelled the group as they boosted spirits through music.
Takes You to Church
The film isn’t all rosy, though, as Perry gets frank while recalling life in Klan country. Her music was arguably as much about giving the Black community a voice—strength and spirit—when hostile forces surrounded them. The title draws upon an adage from Perry’s mother, who encouraged her daughter to make sure her thoughts were always square with the Lord. This philosophy runs through Stay Prayed Up, as Perry’s community members describe a woman who serves fine food after mass when she’s done bringing them to their feet during service.
Stay Prayed Up gets a quick taste of Perry’s home cooking in one sequence that observes one of her weekly gatherings with her kids. There’s nothing but good food and good cheer here, although the kids suggest that Perry’s a taskmaster in the kitchen. Even helping with the dishes is a no-go!
Another thread weaves a story in which music producer Phil Cook taps Perry for an album. Although Cook’s enthusiasm veers on overly celebratory, the doc nevertheless shows the importance of capturing these voices and stories for subsequent generations. It also adds to the larger trend of music docs in which music bridges divides across America while rooting traditions in distinct communities.
Directors D.L. Anderson and Matthew Durning invite audiences to slow down, listen to the music, and be absorbed. One doesn’t need to be a member of the faithful to be buoyed by Perry’s story. Stay Prayed Up is a portrait a woman who devoted a life to community building. Going to the movies can indeed still prove a religious experience.
Stay Prayed Up opens at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on June 17.