The Jesus Music Review: Skimming 50 Years, a Christian Music Doc Chooses Its Controversies Carefully

“The Jesus Music,” a film about the Christian music scene that earned more than half a million dollars over its opening weekend, is about as friendly and far removed from being an expose as a documentary can get, but that doesn’t mean the filmmakers want fans to think they’re getting anything but unvarnished truth. So the opening moments feature some of the movie’s primary participants — including Kirk Franklin, the three former members of DC Talk, Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith (the last two of whom are also among its executive producers) — sitting down for their interviews with tight faces and grim demeanors, as if about to be forced to spill their darkest secrets. But this introductory sequence doth protest too much: “The Jesus Music” is an altogether celebratory film made by the industry for its fans and, as with a lot of contemporary Christian music, throwing in some “brokenness” along with the holiness is part of the pitch.

That’s not to say that the doc doesn’t have some genuinely affecting moments as the stars of the genre recount some of their darker hours in the movie’s mid-section. It has to, when Grant is talking about how her divorce led to a near-career downfall as much of her evangelical audience rejected her, or Franklin and next-generation gospel star Lecrae discuss the racial prejudices of CCM’s primarily white audience, or ’80s star Russ Taff gets candid about alcoholism, or DC Talk’s survivors open up about not having left their egos at the door before their 2000 breakup.

Suffice it to say that anything truly divisive won’t come up for mention in a movie that has the Capitol Christian Music Group as a production partner — most especially not the LGBTQ issues that deeply divide people in the industry, nor anyone who ever left the genre and its vision of the faith behind, like famous reprobate Leslie/Sam Phillips. It’s a “warts and all” portrait of the industry that presents a few carefully chosen blemishes before getting back to selling us the joyful noise.

The directors who bill themselves as the Erwin Brothers (Andrew and Jon, if you must) are moving into the Christian documentary sphere after previously having a huge box-office success dramatizing the story of MercyMe in the biopic “I Can Only Imagine” (following up on earlier features like the anti-abortion drama “October Bay”). It’s actually not a bad narrative idea on their part to reduce “The Jesus Music” to a three-part structure that takes place in three different eras, even if that does leave out huge chunks of the five-decade timeline.

First, there’s the Jesus movement of the very early ’70s, when preachers like Lonnie Frisbee and rockers like Larry Norman wanted to look like as well as extol Christ, and when Costa Mesa’s Calvary Chapel became an unlikely musical epicenter. The film declares that that whole scene culminated at the Explo ’72 Texas rock ‘n’ roll revival meeting, then abruptly jumps forward to the mid-1980s, when Amy Grant and the hair-metal band Stryper were crossing over to VH1, MTV and the pop-rock mainstream. Finally, it’s yet another quantum leap to the 2000s, when the genre’s practitioners are all but abandoning secular crossover in favor of pure worship music — a trend the film maintains was kicked off by Michael W. Smith releasing his “Worship” album on Sept. 11, 2001. (Was that date a coincidence? Smith thinks not.)

Is the industry’s large-scale move over the last two decades toward Hillsong-style worship music — i.e., prayerful songs directed at God, not conversational music from human to human — a confirmation that Christian musicians had finally refound their footing after chasing pop trends for too long? Or was it a tacit admission of defeat in the decades-long attempt to convince the outside world that CCM was as interesting and worthy as any other genre? That, like a lot of other questions, doesn’t seem to have occurred to the makers of “The Jesus Music,” or, if it did, it wasn’t politically expedient to bring a source of actual ambiguity up.

In the meantime, if you’re a longtime follower of Christian music, there’s an enjoyable “old home week” aspect to some of the veterans who show up, in case you were wondering what, say, Chuck Girard of the seminal early ’70s soft-rock band Love Song or the Resurrection Band’s Glenn Kaiser look like now. Grant, in particular, comes off as the reassuring, patient model of how to mature in an industry that doesn’t always reward that.

But before long, past or present devotees will notice who’s left out: not even a mention for Mark Heard, probably the greatest songwriter the genre produced, or Randy Stonehill, and only a fleeting glimpse of an oddball star like Carman (whose weirdness does at least merit a post-credits stinger). World-class singer-guitarist Phil Keaggy was interviewed but only shows up for a guitar lick and a giggle. Never mentioned is the wave of refugees from secular rock who tried reverse crossover, from B.J. Thomas to more marginal figures like secondary members of Santana, America and Wings.

Some of why “The Jesus Music” ultimately feels so unsatisfying in its skimming of the CCM surface has to do with running time, but ultimately, it’s frustrating how little the doc cares about the third word in its title. “The truth is that God has some wild way of allowing his presence to be known via rhythm, rhyme, melody and sound,” Lauren Daigle says in the opening minutes — pretty much the last time any of the elements of actual music-making come up. Songs aren’t allowed to play out for more than a couple of bars, at least till we get to Grant and Smith dueting on “Friends,” which gets a whole chorus.

But the business of contemporary Christian music gets even less attention than the music. Toward the end, worship music’s proponents brag that the movement toward modern hymnody came about through a wave of the Holy Spirit, not through publishers or labels … and at this point, almost two hours in, you might wonder: What’s a record label?

The film’s lack of actual tunes lasting more than a few seconds will leave outsiders to the genre suspicious whether any of this music was ever any good. Some of it was, but “The Jesus Music” is so deeply devoted to skimping on syncs, you’d almost think the filmmakers were trying to hide the genre’s musical light under a bushel instead of just favoring fair-use economics.

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