THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"HILLSONG - LET HOPE RISE"
By the admission of one of its own members, Hillsong United is the most popular band you've never heard of. They have fans around the globe and have sold millions and millions of records, yet they have almost no mainstream awareness. The music documentary Hillsong - Let Hope Rise looks at what this group is doing and why they have struck such a chord with Christians worldwide.
Hillsong is an international church based in Australia. A number of years ago, it started a band to write and perform original music as a means of bringing people together in faith and love. The group became popular, started touring beyond its country of origin, and eventually became a phenomenon among the faithful. The movie follows them as they perform at the Forum in Inglewood, California, write and record a new album that they hope will not simply repeat their past work, and visit impoverished sections of the world, trying to help those in need and spread the word of Jesus.
Hillsong's compositions do not follow the typical verse-chorus-bridge structure of your garden variety Justin Timberlake or Katy Perry tune. They tend to have only a few sentences as lyrics, and those sentences are repeated again and again as the music gradually swells to an uplifting crescendo. The songs seem designed to be easily grasped so that listeners can join in. It's an especially powerful approach in concert, as we see thousands of fans singing along with the group. The movie describes itself as “a theatrical worship experience,” so song lyrics are printed onscreen in case audience members wish to raise their voices.
We get to know the performers in some detail. The thing they all have in common is that none of them view themselves as rock stars. Their goal is not fame, fortune, and celebrity; it is worship. In fact, they describe themselves as “worship leaders” rather than band members. All of them have great humility, refusing to buy into the rock-and-roll lifestyle or view themselves as anything other than messengers of God's word. Hillsong United's objective is simple – to use catchy music to reach out to people who need to hear, or might benefit from, the message. It's a very wise approach. Like the band, Let Hope Rise is not preachy in the least. The movie is just worshipful, allowing viewers to come to the ideas as they wish.
The musicianship is excellent all the way around, but Hillsong United's secret weapon is one of the vocalists, Taya Smith. She has an extraordinary voice with perfect pitch. The documentary's highlight is the performance of the song " Oceans," which may well give you goosebumps, so powerful is Smith's singing.
A few seemingly crucial details are left unanswered by the film. The connection to the church in Australia could have been explained in much more detail. We understand that the band is an offshoot of the church, but we don't quite grasp the details of how they function together. Also, the band members discuss financial hardships. One guy explains how he and his family live with his in-laws and are saving to buy a home. This begs the question: With millions of albums sold and stadiums sold out globally, who's getting the money and what are they doing with it?
Regardless of those issues, Hillsong - Let Hope Rise effectively showcases how the band's work has touched lives everywhere. One of the best scenes finds nearly two dozen sets of fans performing a signature song. The performers come from different countries, are different types of people, and adapt the song into a variety of different formats. You can really tell how great Hillsong United's reach has been.
There's little doubt that this documentary was made with the intention of continuing to further the church's mission. It achieves that objective quite well. The band members reveal how their faith has helped them through difficult times, while the music is genuinely spiritual and joyous to listen to. Faith-based films can sometimes preach to the choir. Hillsong – Let Hope Rise tries to reach people who are not in the choir, too. Even if you're completely unfamiliar with Hillsong United (as I was), this is an upbeat and meaningful celebration of Jesus Christ through music.
( out of four)
Hillsong - Let Hope Rise is rated PG for thematic elements. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.
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