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ALL OVER TOWN: Memphis is at home in ‘The Clark Sisters’ Lifetime movie

TSD’s All Over Town columnist Brianna A. Smith

In the Clark sisters’ home, Mama Clark considers the word “easy” a swear.

“We don’t do easy,” she explained to her daughters in the opening scene after waking them up at three in the morning to record a song the Lord sent her in a dream. “We do excellence.”

The Lifetime original movie “The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel” sang loud and proud on Saturday night, hitting a high note in viewership, receiving an astonishing 2.7 million total viewers, according to Nielsen.

With everyone hunkering down at home, I’m not surprised gospel and music fans around the world tuned in.

Social media buzz proved that “The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel” was a winner. (Photo: Lifetime)

The film begins in 1963 Detroit and introduces us to the sisters’ abusive father and their musically gifted mother Dr. Mattie Moss Clark (played by “When They See Us” Emmy nominee Aunjanue Ellis).

Dr. Clark believed her girls were better than the Jackson 5 and tirelessly taught them how to sing like they knew God. But the Clark sisters’ story – that of Twinkie (Christina Bell, a gospel vocalist), Karen (Kierra Sheard, who portrays her own mother), Dorinda (Sheléa Frazier, a singer and pianist), Denise (Raven Goodwin, Glee) and Jacky (Angela Birchett, a self-described “Broadway girl”) – is one of faith, love and sisterhood amid their humble beginnings and their mother’s overbearing demands.

Directed by Christine Swanson, written by Camille Tucker and Sylvia L. Jones, and executive produced by Missy Elliott, Queen Latifah and Mary J. Blige, the film dives into the story of five sisters’ story of loss, struggling to juggle their religious beliefs, familial obligations, rejection, abuse, personal desires, sibling rivalries, endurance and their rise to fame in the gospel music industry under the guidance of their mother.

For weeks social media has been inundated with promotion for the film, with its stars doing interviews from home and other notable music influences urging fans to tune in.

The hard work paid off as viewers praised the film throughout its live airing. Social media buzz proved that the film was a winner. Viewers loved everything from the casting, to the music and the script.

The film is beautifully shot by Jason Tan, who ensures the Black American church – with its many varieties, from old brick landmarks and modern cement simplicity – is magnificently portrayed.

The music is spectacular: Gospel lovers can rejoice, for the songs are plentiful.

The vocal performances soar.

It was no surprise when I learned the organ tracks in the movie were cut at Memphis’ Mississippi Boulevard Christian by musical director Andre Christopher Morris.

Morris is a Grammy Award-winning songwriter, producer and artist. He played the organ for all of the re-recorded Clark Sisters hits for the movie, which were all sang by the actresses.

No stranger to Morris’ talent – he played the organ at my parents wedding as well as my father’s funeral – I was excited to find out that Memphis had a significant role in this film.

“The musical director for this film, Donald Lawrence, is a genius,” Morris said.

“I’m such a big Clark Sisters fan, especially a Twinkie fan,” he said. “I recall when I was a little boy, I would sit-in on their rehearsals at Mason Temple. I would study Twinkie play the piano.”

Morris continued, “Donald knew that a big factor was not just having an organ, but an organ that sounded like it did in 1980 and that’s why he called on me.”

Morris pulled on his many years of musical-theater experience, as well as some research, to recreate the sound of the 1970s through the 1990s, the era when the Clark Sisters were at their prime.

“I wanted the organ work to sound exactly as if Twinkie were on the keys,” said Morris.

Although the film was shot in Toronto, Lawrence and Morris tracked the organ audio in Memphis.

“We used three Leslie speakers to get that big room sound, the way Twinkie’s organ used to dominate,” he said.

Morris already had a history of working with the Clark Sisters. His finest moment with them was him playing on their 2007 award-winning single, “Blessed and Highly Favored.”

“We won three Grammy Awards off that record and the sisters became the highest-selling female gospel group,” said Morris.

“The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel” is a much-welcomed addition to my “social-distancing watch list” and I suggest you add it to yours.

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