Southern Gospel

You’ve heard of rags-to-riches stories. Southern Gospel is a rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches story. The film charts the many ups and downs of a young man trying to juggle his passions for God, music, and the woman he loves, all in an environment that puts a lot of possibly unfair expectations on him. Writer/director Jeffrey A. Smith isn’t shy about hitting religious beats, but unlike some creators of faith-based fare, he makes real efforts at storytelling and character development. That, combined with a rousing soundtrack, is more than enough to keep you hooked.

Samuel Allen (Max Ehrich) is a preacher’s kid, raised by widower father Joe (Gary Weeks). Seen first as a child in a ‘60s-set prologue, he develops an interest in electric guitars and rock-and-roll. Joe is okay with that, whereas other important members of the congregation claim it’s inappropriate for the pastor’s son to play the “devil’s music.” The story then jumps ahead to Samuel in his late teens/early ‘20s. He dutifully sticks with gospel music, while bringing a certain rock sensibility to his performances. This displeases the church’s ultra-conservative theological “overseer,” T.L. Whittmore (Justice Leak), yet earns him the affection of his crush, Julie Ledbetter (Katelyn Nacon).

Complications begin piling up from there. Samuel leaves the church after being blamed for a tragedy that wasn’t his fault, starts a successful rock band with best friend Barry (J. Alphonse Nelson), gets addicted to drugs, and is nearly killed in a car accident. Those incidents give him a new perspective on life, making him recommit to his faith. Samuel’s updated goal becomes spending his life with Julie and hopefully establishing his own church, free of the incessant judgement he’s faced from the start. The ever-suspicious Whittmore does whatever he can to stand in the way of that.

Southern Gospel has an ingenious way of integrating its Christian message. It takes place in the South from the 1960s to the 1980s, a place and time where religion was firmly ingrained in many people’s lives, spanning generations. When characters talk about their faith, they’re not doing it because the movie is trying to shove a message down the audience’s throat, they’re doing it because it’s authentic to the culture being portrayed. These people pray, go to church, listen to Christian music, and talk about their beliefs openly. In depicting that lifestyle accurately, the movie is able to feel authentic and weave its themes in organically. A lot of significant developments take place, which makes the picture play a tiny bit melodramatically at times. Nevertheless, the sincerity of Samuel’s (and Julie’s) beliefs allows for a finale packed with equal parts emotion and meaning.

Max Ehrich is very good in the lead role. He has an easygoing charisma that goes the opposite direction from how many stars in faith-based productions go. The actor realizes that showing the heartfelt nature of this man’s ideals is more powerful than delivering a “big” scenery-chewing performance. He works up nice chemistry with Katelyn Nacon, who gets to do some heavy lifting in the third act, as Julie makes a revelation about her own life difficulties. I also admired the performance from Justice Leak. He takes what’s written as a generic antagonist and infuses him with a whole history that suggests Whittmore was raised by fire-and-brimstone values and therefore neither knows nor accepts anything else.

The music in Southern Gospel is catchy, and the production values are excellent. You truly get plunged into the time period (even if Samuel and Julie don’t look like they get visibly older as years go by). In the end, a touching message can be found. As expected, part of the message is that you can screw up royally and still find your way back by seeking forgiveness. The other part is that God wants us to dream, to use our talents and abilities in ways that make not only our own lives better, but the lives of those around us too. In other words, gospel music played on an electric guitar is still gospel music. Entertaining and uplifting, the movie really won me over with its inspirational nature.

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out of four

Southern Gospel is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, drug use, some violent content, suicide, and language. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.