The Jesus Music


For some, music is a means of expressing their faith.

(2021) Music Documentary (Lionsgate) Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Toby Mac, Kirk Franklin, Steven Curtis Chapman, Michael Sweet, Phil Keaggy, Eddie DeGarmo, Glenn Kaiser, Tommy Coomes, Chuck Girard, Greg Laurie, John Styll, Matthew Ward, Mike Norman, Joel Smallbone, John Cooper, Chris Tomlin, Lauren Daigle, Jennifer Cooke, Phil Joel, Michael Tait, Natalie Grant. Directed by Andrew and Jon Erwin

 

Like it or not, evangelical Christianity is a part of American culture. In the Seventies there was a massive return to Christianity by baby boomers disenchanted with the strife of the Sixties and with the state of the world and American morality in general. Even in the counterculture, many hippies found themselves feeling that free love, drugs and some of the philosophies of different world religions didn’t bring them the peace they sought.

Some of the hippies congregated at Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California – one of the few churches that welcomed long haired freaky people (who need not apply for jobs, as the Five Man Electrical Band noted). Some of them began to form bands, as disaffected young people will, but in this case they were forming bands with a Christian message. Groups like Love Song and Second Acts of Apostles began to sprout up, as did the ascendency of Larry Norman, considered by many the father of Christian rock and roll.

This fairly informative documentary chronicles the rise of the multi-billion dollar Contemporary Christian music industry from these humble beginnings. The filmmakers chat with folks like Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith, who in the Eighties really started the explosion of Christian music into the mainstream, followed by bands like DC Talk in the decade that followed.

For those, like myself, who are not well-versed in the history of the genre, there is a good deal of information here and the movie is chock full of interviews and performance clips by performers like Steven Curtis Chapman, Kirk Franklin, Stryper and the Newsboys. For the most part, the filmmakers steer away from controversy, other than to obliquely address segregation within the Christian music community (“Why (was) there only one Andrae Crouch,” wonders critic John Thompson) as well as the effect of Grant’s 1989 divorce from songwriter Gary Chapman and subsequent marriage to Vince Gill a year later on her career (it essentially brought it to a screeching halt).

In fact, the word “evangelical” is never mentioned in the documentary, which I imagine is done on purpose. The movie oddly doesn’t really address the rise of evangelical political power that coincided with the rise of Contemporary Christian music, nor does it mention how the careers of some performers were destroyed when they came out of the closet. The movie doesn’t seem to want to address the elephant in the room when it discusses the dearth of African-American performers (whose gospel music was certainly a major influence on modern Christian rock and roll) in that there was also a resurgence of white supremacism within the ranks of evangelical Christians that continues to be an issue.

Still, I can’t fault the filmmakers for not making the movie I would rather they have made. They made a movie that is a celebration of a type of music that brought Christianity into mainstream music where it has remained ever since. Certainly, if you’re looking for that type of film, this will fill the bill. But if you’re looking for an unbiased look into some of the issues with Contemporary Christian music, it’s audience and it’s effect on American culture as of 2021, look elsewhere.

REASONS TO SEE: Extremely informative and meticulously curated.
REASONS TO AVOID: Fails to address the deeper problems that essentially ended the dominance of Contemporary Christian music.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes and a bit of drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the earliest supporters of Contemporary Christian music was evangelist Billy Graham.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews; Metacritic: 42/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: God’s Angry Man
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Godavari

Cowboys


There’s a reason they call it Big Sky country.

(2020) Drama (Goldwyn) Steve Zahn, Jillian Bell, Sasha Knight, Ann Dowd, Gary Farmer, Chris Coy, John Reynolds, Bob Stephenson, AJ Slaght, John Beasley, Seth Breding, Angela Marshall, Steve Dodd, Armando Garcia, Heather LaPointe, Jared Broxterman, Emily Moran, Matt Mhoon, Mari LaPlante, Sawyer Pule, Travis W. Bruyer, Michaela Dixon, Kasey Kurit, Lori Wubben. Directed by Anna Kerrigan

 

Montana has always been a beautiful place where rugged individualism has been admired, and where values are conservative and based on Judeo-Christian beliefs. It is an environment that, from time to time, has been unforgiving of those outside the norm.

At first blush, it appears that Troy (Zahn) and Joe (Knight) are on a father-son camping trip in the beautiful wilds of Montana. When Troy’s truck breaks down, the two end up staying the night at the home of Robert Spottedbird (Farmer), a friend who lends the two his horse. But it becomes clear that there is something not quite right with the scenario. We soon find out that Joe’s mother and Troy’s estranged wife Sally (Bell) has frantically discovered that Joe is missing from his bedroom and calls the police, putting dogged detective Faith (Dowd) on the case.

We are told the backstory to all this in flashbacks, how Joe was born a girl but is convinced that she was born in the wrong body. While Troy is willing to accept this, the more devout Sally is not. Sally, ever-pragmatic, also realizes that this kind of revelation is likely to get Joe bullied at best, and maybe something worse.

As the search for the two goes on, we find that Troy is not nearly a perfect father; he’s bi-polar, and while he’s pretty affable so long as he stays on his meds, he’s prone to fits of rage, one of which in the defense of his son lands him in jail and leads to Sally separating from him. However, the more time Joe spends with Sally, the more he realizes that his mother will never let him be who he is meant to be, couching her denial in terms of “God’s plan.” It is a refrain many transgender folk have heard all too often.

Sally knows that Troy is unreliable, and the longer she is separated from Joe, the more she realizes her own role in his being gone. She also realizes that the longer this goes on, the less likely it is that Troy will come out of this unharmed. As Troy and Joe navigate the wilderness, Joe’s love for cowboys and the cowboy mythology begins to crumble as he realizes that his father, who once seemed to be his only option, might not be competent enough to get them both to Canada – and that Troy has absolutely no plan whatsoever once the two arrive there.

This is a timely movie, inasmuch as it was released a couple of weeks before the House of Representatives passed the Equality Act, a sweeping reform that would insure the rights of transgenders and other LGBTQ citizens (it faces an uphill battle to pass in the Senate where it will need 60 votes). Kerrigan makes the most of the beautiful Big Sky scenery captured by cinematographer John Wakayama Carey, giving us breathtaking vistas and moments of exquisite natural beauty. There are also moments of ugliness, as townspeople come down on Joe and his desire to be male.

The four major roles of Troy, Joe, Sally and Faith are all perfectly cast and Kerrigan gets some outstanding performances from all of them. Bell and Zahn are generally noted for their comedic roles, but both handle the drama here with aplomb, with Zahn giving an absolutely outstanding performance that is sure to bring him some meatier parts in the future. Knight, as Joe, conveys a bittersweet melancholy and world-weary wisdom that belies his character’s years; one can imagine that it would be awful to have to deal with two damaged parents as well as his own issues of sexual identity. Knight’s performance should provide a role model for kids in that situation everywhere.

This is not a movie with easy answers; there are no white hats here (nor are there black hats either). Both Sally and Troy are flawed human beings doing the best that they can and the love they have for Joe is absolutely palpable. There is no doubt that this is, already, one of the year’s best films and should give families undergoing similar issues a starting place for necessary conversations.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautiful scenery. Zahn is as good as he’s ever been and Knight is a revelation. Some moments of heart-rending pathos.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit on the predictable side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kerrigan insisted that the role of Joe be filled by a trans/gender-fluid actor, which Sasha Knight is.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Kid Like Jake
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Nomadland

Cedar Rapids


Cedar Rapids

John C. Reilly, Ed Helms and Isiah Whitlock Jr. carry a precious cargo - Anne Heche.

(2011) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Sigourney Weaver, Anne Heche, Stephen Root, Kurtwood Smith, Alia Shawkat, Rob Corddry, Mike O’Malley, Seth Morris, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Thomas Lennon, Mike Birbiglia. Directed by Miguel Arteta

There is something disarming about the Midwestern version of naiveté. Hollywood, ever the sophisticate, tends to ridicule these sorts of people. I’ve found some of these people to be the salt of the earth and well worth more respect than Hollywood seems to give them.

Tim Lippe (Helms) is an insurance agent in Brown Valley, Wisconsin. He is in his mid-30s but he hasn’t had a lot of life experience. He is having an affair with his first grade teacher Macy Vanderhei (Weaver). He thinks he is living the dream; being an insurance agent is an opportunity to help people when they need it the most. Remember what I said about naiveté?

When Roger Lemke (Lennon), the agency’s most successful agent dies abruptly, Bill Krogstad (Root), the boss of BrownStar Insurance, is forced to send Tim to the regional insurance conference in Cedar Rapids where Roger had won three straight Two Diamonds Awards, the most prestigious award in the industry and as Bill darkly tells Tim, he needs to win again to keep the company afloat.

In Cedar Rapids (which Tim arrives at taking his first plane ride ever), Tim is set to room with Ronald Wilkes (Whitlock), the first African-American man he’s probably ever seen but perhaps the whitest black man ever. Also in the hotel room is Dean Ziegler (Reilly), an insurance agent who really knows how to live it up; drunken debauchery is Dean’s middle name and he is the one person at the conference that Tim was warned to stay away from.

Also part of the group is Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Heche), a married mother of two who uses the convention as an opportunity to cut loose and looks at Tim as her ticket to ecstasy. There is also Bree (Shawkat), a hooker working the convention whom Tim assumes is just a very friendly person.

Tim is set to make a presentation to the regional chairman Orin Helgesson (Smith), whose Christian values are the centerpiece of the Two Diamonds award. However, Tim has fallen in with Dean who has introduced Tim to the wonders of cocktails and crashing Lesbian weddings (which are legal in Iowa by the way). Tim is not equipped to handle the debaucheries of the big city that is Cedar Rapids; corruption, Iowa-style.

Of course, there is a bit of irony here. Okay, a lot of irony. Most people would never think of Cedar Rapids as a den of iniquity but I suppose it’s a matter of perspective; someone who’s never ventured from a small Midwestern town might see it that way. Wait’ll they get a load of Vegas.

Ed Helms has proven himself a great second banana not only in “The Office” but also in the Hangover movies. He hasn’t been given the opportunity to shoulder the load in a movie until this one, but he does so admirably. He plays the character irony-free, giving him genuine joy at the simple things like an atrium pool, the smell of chlorine, key cards and an extra bag of honey-roasted peanuts on the plane. Super awesome!

Reilly might just be the best second banana in the business. The reason for that is that he has the good sense to allow the leads to do what they’re best at and play the foil to them. He’s done that with Will Ferrell and he does it here with Helms. Still, Reilly manages to craft a memorable character of his own, one who might seem to be the absolute devil to a man like Tim but turns out to be as loyal a friend as you can ask for. Both Whitlock and Heche give solid performances, with Heche’s being particularly poignant and Whitlock’s more comedic.

I enjoyed the atmosphere Arteta weaves here, the world he creates. It’s a simpler place in a lot of ways  and to be honest, I kind of like that. Towards the end it gets kind of dark as Tim discovers harder drugs and so forth and that isn’t as funny in my view as the first part of the movie as we meet Tim – he seems to go outside the parameters he sets for himself and while I know that does happen in real life, it feels a little false here.

The humor works most of the time however – in fact, far more often than most comedies. This is one of those movies that got a little bit overlooked during its release – it went out in limited release and only had a few screens in some places and none at all in others. It is however worth seeking out, particularly if you’re into “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation” or “Modern Family” – which isn’t entirely a bad thing.

WHY RENT THIS: Hysterically funny in places. Helms proves himself to be an able comic lead.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie plumbs darker waters towards the end. Sometimes a little too over-the-top for what is billed as a light comedy.

FAMILY VALUES: The language can be pretty foul and there’s a good deal of sexual content, along with some drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Whitlock references the HBO series “The Wire,” which he was a cast member in – although not as Omar.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a gag reel and a bit on Mike O’Malley’s “urban clogging” bit, as well as a fake commercial for the insurance agency that Tim Lippe works at.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.9 on an unreported production budget; the movie broke even at best.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Saint John of Las Vegas