Sometimes a film leaves you with more questions than it answers — and not in that “Inception” mind-blowing sense. It’s more like: How did this get made, and why?
Those questions will be a common reaction to “The Jesus Music,” a film that preaches to the choir who love contemporary Christian music (CCM) by tracing the genre’s roots from the 1970s to the present day. Filmmaking brothers Jon and Andrew Erwin rely heavily on the artists to tell that story, with a few industry figures from co-producing partner K-LOVE and one historian, John Thompson, who offers mild critiques at times.
The Erwins’ approach works for inspirational biopics, likely including their flick on NFL great Kurt Warner, out this Christmas. Clearly, this documentary is crafted with heartfelt love of these artists and their music. But in an era of true-crime and tell-all docs, viewers may feel they’re “looking through rose-colored stained-glass windows,” to quote lyrics from a 90s-era CCM hit.
“From the beginning, we weren’t trying to chase the scandal,” Andy Erwin told me in an interview. “We were trying to understand the human struggles of these artists.”
Granted, anyone who loves the songs of Michael W. Smith and his contemporaries over the past 40 years (I confess that I do) will enjoy “The Jesus Music” and learn quite a lot. The co-directors’ empathetic lens captures stand-out emotional moments, such as Toby Mac sharing about the recent tragic loss of his son Truett.
Historic footage compiled here of live events, music videos, and news footage visualizes key moments from this cultural history. Casual critics of the radio-driven genre would do well to watch this doc to know key players and events of this subculture. It’s a fast-paced CCM 101 course, better than any Wikipedia page. But it feels incomplete at best.
Trailblazers vs. Church Traditionalists
Erwin believes CCM was founded with “the spirit of a trailblazer,” against the grain of society. “Artists ask, ‘How do I find my voice when I don’t feel like anybody out there is like me?’ That trailblazing spirit is romantic, rebellious, and universally relatable,” he said.
When referring to the industry’s roots, Erwin has a point. A spiritual revival in the 1960s and early 70s, the Jesus People Movement was sparked in West Coast churches and spread across the United States. Young people rebelling against the mainstream found substance in an organic Christian faith with few religious trappings.
“These kids had burnt out on sex and drugs,” said Erwin. “They had an encounter with Jesus Christ, began to understand the gospel and became known as Jesus Freaks. Their music came out of that.” The film introduces CCM pioneers such as Resurrection Band, 2nd Chapter of Acts, and Larry Norman.
Early segments of “The Jesus Music” capture that free-wheeling spirit, particularly footage from Explo ‘72, a week-long outdoor festival in Dallas in June 1972. Top folk-rock artist Johnny Cash played a set alongside CCM acts like Norman, Andraé Crouch, Love Song, and evangelist Billy Graham famously endorsed the youth gathering.
“By standing side by side with some of these guys, Billy risked a lot of backlash,” said film producer Kevin Downes. “I love his heart, how he saw that the message drove these artists.”
Fast-forward a decade and the film’s other standout segment has that conflict — between church traditionalists and cultural rebels—play out in vivid, gripping detail. Heavy metal band Stryper played to packed audiences in the 1980s and their ear-splitting videos received major rotation on MTV. Their name derives from a Bible verse that believers view as referring to Christ—“by his stripes we are healed” —and their songs invariably reference seeking God and rejecting the world.
Members of Stryper share how they converted to Christianity thanks to a televangelist. Years later, that same TV preacher denounced their music on-air. It’s a potent story told with nuance.
‘Moments of Critique’
When the film tries to trace a trailblazing spirit to current-day CCM, it mostly misses how commerce became a prevailing driver. “Safe for the whole family” radio stations and now-closed Christian bookstores have long driven which CCM songs and artists make it into the spotlight.
Today, CCM radio stations — many affiliated with K-LOVE, co-producer of this documentary — openly state that their song choices cater to “Becky,” a prototype 35-year-old white woman with two kids. Does that narrow demographic focus limit the themes and styles that Christian artists can explore? Why do so many of the genre’s hits sound so similar?
The doc doesn’t seem interested in such questions. “We tried to pick our moments of critique,” co-director Andy Erwin said. “Because it felt like too many rabbit trails, we didn’t explore all of those [conflicts].”
One segment critiques how white-majority CCM has segregated from black gospel, rap, and related music styles rooted in minority communities. Grammy-winning artist Kirk Franklin shares his perspective at some length.
Recently, Franklin has chosen to boycott the GMA Dove Awards, after his past speeches were edited out of the telecast — specifically, mentions of racial injustice. “Not only did they edit my speech, they edited the African American experience,” Franklin said in 2019.
This film shows top Christian artists listening as Franklin delivers a rousing speech that addresses current concerns in black-majority communities. Other artists, notably Lecrae, also speak of discrimination they’ve faced. However, it lacks the power it could have if the doc had provided context, as it never mentions the telecast editing of Franklin’s past speeches.
“Catharsis tends to unite a lot more than shame,” said Erwin in response. “What was important to [Franklin] was being heard — not picking a fight.”
Idealized Portrait of a Complex Story
With its gentle tack, “The Jesus Music” ends up with some resonant emotional moments and interesting stories. It also serves as an appetizer of sorts for a mid-budget dramatic biopic, “The Jesus Revolution,” which the Erwins and team are set to film — with Jim Gaffigan co-starring as Calvary Chapel Pastor Chuck Smith and Joel Courtney as Greg Laurie. “You’ll see pieces of this documentary in that movie,” said producer Downes.
Creative pioneers did jumpstart CCM as this documentary contends, though many debate whether it’s ended up where it started. To attempt a 201 or 301 course on CCM, one would need to ask harder questions: about the mix of faith and commerce, Christian celebrity as spiritual authority, and the creative pitfalls of mimicking mainstream music.
Such ideas don’t fit into a 90-minute film that’s content to end as neatly as a three-minute song. “A film like this sends audiences on a journey and it can’t seem too disjointed,” said Downes, in defense of their approach. “You’ve got to craft something that makes narrative sense.”
While preaching to the choir has its place, American religion has enough players doing feel-good hagiography without documentary filmmakers getting in on the act.
Rated PG-13 for some drug references and mature themes, “The Jesus Music” is currently in theaters and soon on-demand.