It's a fascinating coincidence that the leaders in faith-based filmmaking are sets of siblings. Alex and Stephen Kendrick found commercial success with Courageous, War Room, and Overcomer. Andrew and Jon Erwin found it with Woodlawn, I Can Only Imagine, and I Still Believe. In a second coincidence, both sibling teams have documentaries out in 2021. The Kendricks recently delivered Show Me the Father, while the Erwins now have The Jesus Music. The cool thing about this movie is that it's a good music doc, even if you're not into the particular type of music at the center.
Contemporary Christian music (CCM) is thriving, and the film looks at how it went from an obscure genre to a multi-billion dollar phenomenon. The tale starts in the 1970s, when disillusioned hippies began flocking to a California church that welcomed them without judgment. This led to the birth of “Jesus Freaks,” hippies who played instruments and performed religious songs. A singer named Larry Norman was one of the first to break out of this scene, thanks to his song “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music.” Whereas traditional evangelicals were not entirely welcoming of Norman and his ilk, an unexpected endorsement from Billy Graham helped this new form of Christian music gain acceptance.
From there, The Jesus Music uses interviews with top CCM artists to look at how the genre has both evolved and endured growing pains. Among the topics covered: how Amy Grant broke into the mainstream, then faced a backlash from Christians who ironically resented her faith message making it onto the pop charts; the birth of Christian metal artists like Slayer in the 1980s; the rapid rise and equally rapid downfall of DC Talk, which provided a cautionary tale to others in the field; and the way Christian audiences have grappled with how to “forgive” beloved artists for human foibles like divorce and alcoholism.
The most gripping section focuses on Kirk Franklin, a Black performer who brought hip-hop to the scene. He rightly bemoans the lack of integration in CCM, pointing out that record labels and evangelical audiences prefer their artists to be lily-white. The Jesus Music doesn't shy away from the suggestion that a level of racism is inherent in the evangelical community, where whiteness is seen as “pure.” Messages of fellowship and universal love may come out of people's mouths, but those qualities might not be fully in their hearts. That's a provocative note, and the documentary is brave to include it.
Hearing from two dozen or so top CCM artists makes the film's examination of the topic gripping. Everyone is fairly candid in their observations. To the extent that there's a standout, it's Toby "TobyMac" McKeehan, one-third of DC Talk. By all accounts a prodigiously talented and admittedly demanding performer, he has some disillusionment with the CCM community, as well as the insistence from fans that artists fit into a specific box. He's consequently rubbed a few people the wrong way from time to time, despite universal admiration for his talent. TobyMac's insights are the most potent in the movie.
As a college student, I was friends with people who were very much into CCM, which gave me an appreciation of many of the performers featured here, even if I was far more prone to spin Oingo Boingo and Talking Heads records. It doesn't matter if you're a hardcore fan, have a casual familiarity (like me), or know nothing about CCM. The Jesus Music is an informative and entertaining exploration of a musical genre that has made an enormous impact in the business.
out of four
The Jesus Music is rated PG-13 for some mature thematic material. The running time is 1 hour and 49 minutes.