‘The Jesus Music’ doc avoids tough questions to preach to choir
Sometimes a movie leaves you with more questions than it answers – and not in that mind-boggling sense of “creation”. Rather, it is: how was it done, and why?
These questions will be a common reaction to “The Jesus Music”, a film that preaches to the choir in love with contemporary Christian music (CCM) by tracing the roots of the genre from the 1970s to the present day. Brother filmmakers Jon and Andrew Erwin rely heavily on artists to tell this story, with a few industry figures from co-production partner K-LOVE and historian John Thompson offering moderate reviews at times.
The Erwins’ approach works for inspiring biopics, possibly including their movie about the NFL great Kurt Warner, released this Christmas. Obviously, this documentary is crafted with a genuine love for these artists and their music. But in an era of real crime and revealing documentaries, viewers can feel like they are “looking through pink stained glass windows,” to quote the lyrics of a ’90s CCM hit.
“From the start, we weren’t trying to chase the scandal,” Andy Erwin told me in an interview. “We were trying to understand the human struggles of these artists.”
Certainly, anyone who enjoys the songs of Michael W. Smith and his contemporaries over the past 40 years (I admit yes) will enjoy “The Jesus Music” and learn a lot. The co-directors’ empathetic lens captures remarkable emotional moments, such as Toby Mac sharing the recent tragic loss of his son Truett.
The historical footage compiled here from live events, music videos, and news footage visualize key moments in this cultural history. Occasional critics of the radio genre would do well to take a look at this document to learn about the main players and events in this subculture. It’s a quick CCM 101 course, better than any Wikipedia page. But it feels incomplete at best.
Pioneers against traditionalists of the Church
Erwin believes that CCM was founded with “the spirit of a pioneer”, against the grain of society. “Artists ask, ‘How can I find my voice when I don’t feel like someone is like me? “This pioneering spirit is romantic, rebellious and universally identifiable,” he said.
Referring to the roots of the industry, Erwin is right. A spiritual renewal in the 1960s and early 1970s, the Popular movement of Jesus was started in churches on the west coast and spread across the United States. Youth in rebellion against the mainstream have found substance in an organic Christian faith with little religious pageantry.
“These kids were exhausted from sex and drugs,” Erwin said. “They had an encounter with Jesus Christ, began to understand the gospel, and became known as Jesus Freaks. Their music came out of there. The film features CCM pioneers such as Resurrection Band, 2nd Chapter of Acts, and Larry Norman.
The early segments of “The Jesus Music” capture this freewheeling spirit, particularly footage from Explo ’72, a week-long outdoor festival in Dallas in June 1972. Folk-rock artist Johnny Cash has performed a set alongside CCM actors like Norman, Andraé Crouch, Love Song and evangelist Billy Graham endorsed the youth gathering.
“Standing side by side with some of these guys, Billy risked a lot of backlash,” film producer Kevin Downes said. “I love his heart, how he saw the message driving these artists.”
Fast forward a decade and the film’s other remarkable segment shows this conflict – between church traditionalists and cultural rebels – unfolding in startling and startling detail. The heavy metal band Stryper play in front of a packed audience in the 1980s and their stunning videos received a significant rotation on MTV. Their name derives from a Bible verse that believers consider to refer to Christ – “by His stripes we are healed” – and their songs invariably refer to seeking God and rejecting the world.
Stryper members share how they converted to Christianity thanks to a televangelist. Years later, that same TV preacher denounced their on-air music. It’s a powerful story told with nuance.
“Moments of Criticism”
When the film tries to trace a pioneering spirit to the current CCM, it mostly misses how trade has become a dominant driver. “Safe for the whole family” radio stations and Christian bookstores now closed have long determined which CCM songs and artists are in the spotlight.
Today, CCM radio stations – many of which are affiliated with K-LOVE, co-producer of this documentary – openly state that their song choices are directed to “Becky,” a prototype 35-year-old white woman with two children. Does this narrow demographic focus limit the themes and styles Christian artists can explore? Why are so many hits of the genre so alike?
The doc doesn’t seem interested in such questions. “We tried to choose our critical moments,” said co-director Andy Erwin. “Because it sounded like too many bunny trails, we didn’t explore all of these [conflicts]. “
One segment criticizes how the predominantly white CCM broke away from black gospel, rap and related musical styles rooted in minority communities. Grammy-winning artist Kirk Franklin shares his point at some length.
Recently, Franklin chose to boycott the GMA Dove Awards, after his past speeches were removed from telecast – specifically, mentions of racial injustice. “Not only did they edit my speech, they edited the African American experience,” Franklin said in 2019.
This film shows top Christian performers listening to Franklin deliver a rousing speech that addresses the concerns of today’s predominantly black communities. Other artists, notably Lecrae, also speak of the discrimination they have faced. However, he lacks the power he might have had had the document provided context, as it never mentions the televised montage of Franklin’s past speeches.
“Catharsis tends to unite a lot more than shame,” Erwin said in response. “What was important for [Franklin] was heard – not fighting.
Idealized portrait of a complex story
With its sweetness, “The Jesus Music” ends with resonant emotional moments and interesting stories. It also serves as an appetizer of sorts for a mid-budget dramatic biopic, “The Jesus Revolution,” which the Erwins and the team are expected to direct. movie – with Jim Gaffigan as Pastor Calvary Chapel Chuck Smith and Joel Courtney as Greg Laurie. “You’ll see pieces of that documentary in this movie,” producer Downes said.
The creative pioneers started the CCM as this documentary claims, although many wonder if it ended where it started. To attempt a 201 or 301 course on CCM, one would have to ask more difficult questions: about the mixture of faith and commerce, Christian fame as spiritual authority, and the creative pitfalls of imitating traditional music.
Ideas like this don’t fit into a 90-minute movie that just ends as well as a three-minute song. “A movie like this sends audiences on a journey and it can’t seem too disjointed,” Downes said, defending their approach. “You have to create something that has narrative meaning. “
While preaching to the choir has its place, American religion has enough actors to do welfare hagiography without documentary filmmakers getting involved in the act.
Rated PG-13 for some drug references and mature themes, “The Jesus Music” is currently in theaters and soon on demand.
Josh Shepherd covers culture, faith and public policy for several media, including The Stream. His articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion & Politics, Faithfully Magazine, Religion News Service, and Providence Magazine. A graduate of the University of Colorado, he previously served on the staff of the Heritage Foundation and Focus on the Family. Josh and his wife live in the Washington, DC area with their two children.