‘The Jesus Music’ Film Review: Amy Grant, Stryper and TobyMac Dominate an Eager-to-Please Documentary

·6-min read

In the beginning was Amy Grant. Sort of. She wasn’t the first to the Contemporary Christian Music party — a slew of shoeless longhairs in the early 70s beat her to it — but when she arrived, she was the well-scrubbed, modest girl next door who inspired a fledgling arm of the music industry to collectively dream of platinum albums.

And as one of the producers of this documentary from directors Andrew Erwin and Jon Erwin (“I Can Only Imagine”), a pleasant-enough advertorial that glides through the brief history of CCM and elides its thornier issues, Grant gets the first and last words.

Pre-Amy, there were the Jesus People: the young adults of the late 1960s, burned out on drugs and other religions they consumed as novelties, returning to the faith of their fathers. In Costa Mesa, California, a church called Calvary Chapel welcomed these prodigal sons and daughters and the music they were making. In short order, bands sprang up at Calvary just as other bands and solo artists were emerging in other cities. Love Song, Second Chapter of Acts, Phil Keaggy, Keith Green and the wildly complicated Larry Norman (an artist considered too secular for Christian audiences and too Christian for secular audiences) laid a foundation that became known as “Jesus Music.”

The enthusiastic reception of this music among young Evangelicals (a word pointedly never mentioned in this documentary) coupled with a broader Christian revival of baby boomers entering adulthood, was enough of an overground phenomenon to make the cover of Time magazine. The opposition, what little existed, came from established older clergy who rejected the formal elements of the music itself, since Protestant churches in the United States had been pointedly against rock and roll. Even with an unlikely high-profile ally in evangelist Billy Graham, who publicly encouraged the music, the artists were often rejected by churches over aesthetic and decibel-based offenses.

Employing standard documentary usage of archival footage and new interviews with artists from every decade of the genre’s ascension, the Erwins move with stylistic ease through a mostly chronological narrative arc that emphasizes the earnest intentions of the assembled artists. That narrative’s deep flaw comes when the film treats the increased corporate demands on the industry, as well as the difficult social realities and injustices that are either ignored or aggravated by Evangelical culture, as mostly not worth mentioning.

Fast forward to the 80s, and the game-changing emergence of Christian music as a cultural force within the Evangelical world and an untapped market with mainstream crossover potential, represented here from the seemingly polar opposite success stories of Grant — the first Christian artist to sell that mythical million for her 1982 album “Age to Age” — and metal band Stryper, a band that came to Christianity, ironically, due to the influence of bellowing anti-rock televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, and whose black-and-yellow-striped spandex costumes won them a fervent MTV audience.

Of course, no punchlines from the secular world about the oddity of Christian rock were any match for the fury of fundamentalist believers, and both Grant and Stryper recall receiving more than their share of self-righteous wrath. Stryper earned wild-eyed “Satanic Panic” outrage, while the steadfastly wholesome Grant was a target for collective Evangelical misogyny. She was a woman on a stage wearing pants and makeup; that was enough evidence for absurd charges of inappropriate sexiness.

The Erwins remain mostly content to skim the surface of artist success and scandal, though Grant’s 1999 divorce from songwriter Gary Chapman, her remarriage to Vince Gill, and its subsequent career damage gets empathetic treatment, as does an interview with ’80s vet Russ Taff, whose alcoholism is movingly addressed, though annoyingly mischaracterized by other interviewees as a “sin” problem.

The rise and then abrupt breakup of hip-hop/alt-rock trio DC Talk is explained as a casualty of too much fame, too soon. This is an easy enough “Behind the Music” trope to understand, but it reads like honest reasons are getting a polite sidestep. The members go their separate ways, with front man TobyMac enjoying a successful solo career, Michael Tait fronting “God’s Not Dead” instigators Newsboys, and Kevin Max (appearing here with an expression of barely concealed disgruntlement) leaving the Evangelical world, though not the Christian faith itself.

When the film finally addresses Christian music’s larger responsibility to the world rather than in-house bickering, it’s in the form of a discussion of industry racism. Framed by gospel star Andrae Crouch’s experience of tokenism in the 1970s and ’80s and megastar Kirk Franklin’s moving personal story, as well as the latter’s bold public statements regarding structural racism, it’s the film’s one attempt at relevance for 2021. The embrace of Franklin by a highly segregated industry comes in for critique from commentator and “True Tunes” podcaster John Thompson, who pointedly calls it “late,” asking, “Why is it that there [was] only one Andrae Crouch?”

Content with dipping its toe into a social issue without risking much, what’s most revealing in “The Jesus Music” is what’s left out. Pioneering artist Randy Stonehill doesn’t exist here. Sandi Patty, whose own divorce was probably more shocking to Evangelicals than Grant’s, is barely mentioned.

There’s no screen time for the nuances of careers like those of Sam Phillips, who left CCM behind in the late 80s to become a respected singer-songwriter, or Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan, whose atheism makes him a prophetic voice aimed squarely at Evangelical culture itself. (In the 2019 doc “Strange Negotiations,” he states, “I care about what happens with Christianity. I want it to get better. I want it to quit sh—ing the bed so consistently.”)

Nor is there any mention of artists like Jennifer Knapp and Ray Boltz, who found themselves kicked out of the industry after coming out as queer. Rather than interrogate any of this or discuss the industry’s refusal to engage with the deeper questions its very real and very human artists ask of it and of their faith, rather than mention Evangelical complicity in the election of Donald Trump, rather than ask why most Christian musicians remained silent during those four years, the film instead chooses to celebrate the emergence of the feel-good “worship music” movement represented by artists like Chris Tomlin and bands like Hillsong United.

Marked by repetitive, scripture-based lyrics at the expense of personal introspection, worship music has taken over churches and Christian radio with an intent to uplift and comfort, and it makes for a big blank space onscreen. Framed within the film as a return to the original Jesus Music movement, it’s the last strike of timidity and disingenuousness before the credits roll. The late Larry Norman could not be reached for comment.

“The Jesus Music” opens in U.S. theaters Oct. 1.

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