Rare is the soundtrack that goes to the effort of soliciting original recordings, and rarer still is one that puts considerable thought into those recordings' direction. For The Great Debaters, a film about the 1935 debate team at Wiley College (a tiny African-American school in Marshall), director/star Denzel Washington and music supervisor G. Marq Roswell went well beyond the extra mile. Not only did the two round up a stunning collection of the era's best blues and spirituals, they employed excellent modern talents to perform them: Sharon Jones, the only neo-soul singer with a voice like a vintage soul singer; guitarist Alvin Youngblood Hart, whose contemporary take on Delta blues is raw, authentic and mercilessly de-romanticized; and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, with standout front-porch banjo and fiddle. All three are the perfect vehicles for these classic songs, and Memphis's Ardent Studios proved the perfect recording environment for the spacious-sounding session work. The resulting takes on numbers like "I've Got Blood in My Eyes for You," "Nobody's Fault But Mine," "City of Refuge" and "We Shall Not Be Moved" (featuring chill-inducing choir work) are soulful, and deeply evocative of The Great Debaters' time and place. Better still, they're also a showcase for some of the most potent contemporary musicians around.
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