How do you squeeze 60 years of musical history into a documentary that lasts less than two hours? You can’t, but those behind The Jesus Music, which hits theatres today, have made a valiant attempt.
It is difficult for me to objectively assess this film. The subject matter is something I know a little about – in fact possibly more than the filmmakers. I have lived and breathed Christian music since I was a teenager. Most of the people interviewed for this documentary I interviewed myself during my radio years. Some I got to know quite well as our paths crossed many times.
Which meant I approached this look at Christian music with some trepidation. Would there be enough analysis of the beginnings of “Jesus Music?” Would there be sufficient tribute to the pioneers of the late 1960s and early 1970s? How would they approach the various controversies that have been part of the Christian music community over the past six decades?
To say I was impressed is an understatement. The film blew me away. There is so much there to absorb – and if you have never been exposed to Christian music, The Jesus Music is an excellent primer, showing how the music moved from its beginnings to where it is today.
The documentary mixes concert footage, old interviews and clips with contemporary reflections. Rather than a linear approach, it provides a snapshot of some important years in music history. For me it was a trip down memory lane, with Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Rez Band, Stryper, DC Talk, Larry Norman, Phil Keaggy, Andrae Crouch and so many more.
I could make a long list of people I wish had been included, but there are limits to how long people will watch a film. Which is probably one reason for the choice to focus on Christian music as it became a Nashville-based industry and ignore (for the most part) the contributions other regions of the US, not to mention the UK.
One thing that surprised me was the honesty in the interviews as musicians looked back on their early years. I think maybe the opportunity to share a portion of their stories caused a few to set aside the caution that comes naturally when the red light on the camera is on. Or maybe with the passage of time there is less to lose. Credit is due the filmmakers for tackling some hard topics, such as racism and unforgiveness in the Christian music industry.
And make no mistake, it is an industry, a multi-billion dollar one. Watching 50-year-old clips of the origins of Jesus Music left me wondering how some of the early performers of the genre feel about what their creation has evolved into. This is perhaps where The Jesus Music pulls its punches.
If I was looking for a true failing of the film, maybe it is the missed opportunity to look at the theological underpinnings of the music, and how those have changed over the past half-century. In the late 1960s, as the so-called Jesus revolution was birthed in California and swept across the US, there was a sense of urgency that is lacking from the music today. Those hippies turned Christian believed in the imminent return of Jesus. They felt compelled to share the Gospel, to tell as many people as possible as quickly as possible. Music was a big part of that, music that spoke to a generation that wouldn’t darken a church door.
I don’t feel that same urgency in Christian music today. The musicians are making great music (some of which you can see in The Jesus Music), but so much of what is being made seems turned inward, music being made for the church and for Christians. The horizontal has been replaced by the vertical. When I look at the pioneers featured in this documentary, the music they were making and the people they were reaching, I am a bit saddened by the present state of Christian music.
Which may just be a natural nostalgia for yesteryear on my part. Artists like Lecrae and Lauren Daigle, both featured in the film, are reaching large audiences today with a Christian message. It just seems to me that too many are not reaching out the way the pioneers did.
My local cinema does not have the film listed. That may be because I live in Canada. Our Christian population, the natural market for this documentary, is probably considered too small to fill the number of seats needed to make a profit.
Too bad really. I think this film could be of interest to a wider audience, people who like good music and are curious about what makes musicians tick.
If you do live in an area where The Jesus Music is being shown, do yourself a favor and head to the theatre this weekend. The rest of us will have to be content with waiting for it to be released on DVD or to a streaming service.