As Phoebe Bridgers sings; “You were screaming at the Evangelicals/They were screaming right back from what I remember.” This sums up The Jesus Music pretty well, a film that attempts to jumpstart a brand new revolution akin to the counterculture movement in the 1960s.
Documentaries are always a high wire act, as a battle between being open and honest and more or less a “puff piece” always takes place on the screen. Take Amazon Prime’s “Val” for example; Val Kilmer is a producer and the main subject of the film, yet it does not come off as a contrived pity party. Amy Grant, “The Queen of Christian Pop,” is a producer on “The Jesus Music,” though it wouldn’t take me telling you to figure that out for yourself. While the case of the Christian Contemporary Music world is an interesting one to explore, “The Jesus Music” often fails its mission by being unfocused. It’s oftentimes a chronicle of an era in a given artists’ career, other times it is focused on Worship, or “Jesus music.”
Fans of Amy Grant, TobyMac, Michael W. Smith, and Michael Tait will likely be pleased, as the four of them make up most of the film. There are occasional appearances from Lecrae and Lauren Daigle—who deserved more of her story being told as she has truly crossed over between the secular and the Christian world. While she gets about five minutes or so towards the end, she deserved more for people of my generation, who hear her music more often than Grant herself.
That is not to vilify or bash Grant, whose story is important as she has seen the highs and lows of the Christian music industry. Unfortunately, it took up too much time of the film, and that can come off worse than intended when you see her name attached as a producer on the film.
Chris Tomlin and David Crowder, two of the industry’s biggest draws, do make brief appearances, though it felt like it was to check off a box on the film’s behalf. Maybe they couldn’t get them for extended interviews, but the trailer also used clips from both of their only appearances, including using Tomlin’s name at the forefront in the trailer after the main four are listed off. Marketing the film with them makes sense, but it stinks for anyone who is a fan of either artist. It is especially puzzling in the case of Tomlin, who the film admits is the biggest star in the industry. His music is sung all over the world and is as big as some secular artists according to one of the talking heads in the film.
For a film that is set out to tell the beginnings of the Christian music industry and chronicle it to this day, I think it is safe to say that it failed in that respect. Sure, you do get a history lesson about Maranatha and Larry Norman, and the counterculture revolution in the 1960s (which is far more interesting than most of the film), but with each era, came long stories (usually from one of the four listed two paragraphs above) that sidetracked the main narrative. Did TobyMac’s rise play into the rise of Christian music? Yes. But band tensions between his original group, DC Talk, could have been a film on its own. Though it is hard to imagine that any of the main subjects would be interesting enough on their own for an entire documentary.
I do understand why this type of film is important. I grew up playing in worship bands and going to Christian schools, but “The Jesus Music” is far too reliant on getting sympathy for the scrutiny some of the artists—or “pioneers” as one of the artists dubbed himself and his group—have faced over the years, and its message—while somewhat inspiring—is lost somewhere along the way. If I had to guess where it was lost, it was likely in one of the many tangents. The enjoyment you take from the film will depend on whether or not you like the artists that are prominently featured. But for those who either have little to no knowledge of the Christian worship scene, it’s unlikely this will educate you enough to pique your interest. For all of the good intent, “The Jesus Music” falls flat with its offering and is unlikely to convert newbies to the Christian music scene.
“The Jesus Music” hits theatres on October 1.