Documentary Review: “The Jesus Music” explores the history of CCM — “Contemporary Christian Music”

The early sequences of “The Jesus Music,” a history of CCM — “contemporary Christian music” — depict the social ferment that “the movement” was born in — the late 1960s. And the interview subjects popping up on screen and the film’s co-directors narrow their focus to overdose death icons Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, and lean on the “end of the flower child movement/end of the ’60s” concert at Altamonte while brushing past Woodstock.

A critical viewer might wonder, just for a moment, if Newt Gingrich is a producer in this new skirmish in the Culture Wars.

There’s a lot of edges-rubbed-off, artists-avoiding “difficult” questions, ever so politely, that follows as we’re taken from the music’s California birth, to it’s Nashville-takeover and the Christian pop breakthrough of Amy Grant in the ’80s on towards the faith-based pop of today.

But stick with it and the warts are acknowledged — some of them, anyway. Substance abuse issues, broken marriages, that stuff made headlines so there was no avoiding it in the film even if you can’t call how “The Jesus Music” addresses such issues “confronting” them.

And watch assorted figures in and around the music talk about how “segregated” it’s become, the grudging acceptance of Gospel music legend Andre Crouch, the racism artists like Kirk Franklin and Michael Tait faced and continue to face and the blowback they get for even suggesting “Black lives matter” in the most contrite way imaginable, from a stage.

So this film charting the rise of a “movement” that morphed into an “industry” is a mixed bag — upbeat and celebratory, contorting itself into a pretzel to avoid dealing with anything that might ruffle the potential audience.

“Music” does a decent job in the “history” regard, taking us back to Costa Mesa’s Cavalry Chapel, which reached out to West Coast hippies, and with a congregation in long hair and jeans, allowed in musicians who changed worship music forever. Here’s Amy Grant in Nashville’s Belmont Church and Koinonia Coffee remembering the way this “Southern religious town” was shaken by the contemporizing of worship music in ways that went beyond country music’s white Gospel roots. Lauren Daigle speaks of her desire “to see the richness of hope land upon someone’s spirit and (they) embrace the embrace of God,” and her seeing “His presence…via rhythm, rhyme and melody.”

We hear the “pioneers,” Love Song,” Californians with Beach Boys harmonies who recorded on Marantha! Music, the first Christian record label, an outgrowth of that Cavalry Chapel’s ministry.

The film gives Billy Graham center stage as an early “mainstream” acceptor of “youth music,” and Jimmy Swaggart as a dogmatic foe of it, inveighing against specific singers and bands (Stryper) from his TV pulpit.

This gets labeled “so underground” and that’s “the most punk thing I’ve ever seen” (bands performing for the benefit of ministries), when who and what’s being discussed is “edgy” only within this insular world.

As we make our mostly triumphant way past Grant and Michael W. Smith to DC Talk and Stryper, Talk-alumnus Tait’s Newsboys success to “Stomp,” a breakout, crossover club hit for Kirk Franklin on into into Hillsong country, you wonder about not just the elephant in the room, but the elephants.

The “racism” and “segregation” spoken of points to Christian white supremacy’s rise and Christianity’s decline in North America, subjects the film bends over backwards to avoid. As the two coincided, that’s kind of a big thing to skip by.

You have to Google “Hillsong scandals” to get any hint of what a pockmarked enterprise that behemoth is.

When an editor of “Contemporary Christian Music” magazine talks of fans being “forgiving” of artists who have personal scandals, great and small, you can’t help but notice he’s leaving out the phrase “of our own kind.”

I kept thinking back to the many “history of hip hop” documentaries (“Rhyme & Reason” and “Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme” etc.) and wishing the Erwin Brothers had the ambition to burrow into that history and make THAT movie — strictly historic — instead of an illusory “this is where we’ve been, and the future’s never been brighter” fluffing. The historical material, with some of those who “were there,” is fascinating, even if the context is short-changed (No mention of “Jesus Christ Superstar?”).

Amy Grant had a lot of things going for her, and never mentioning her gorgeous girl-next-door sex appeal is laughable. She started her career as a college coed and was polished, primed and ready for a breakout crossover hit, if not the silly blowback from Christian conservatives that followed.

That goes for virtually everybody that came after her, especially the younger acts. Ignoring hormones is strictly a Southern Baptist thing, or so one had believed.

And resurrecting decades of accounts of rising dollar amounts in sales is putting an emphasis on that sort of success — a 9/11 tribute where “everybody showed up in their private jet” — and noting a rough figure for listenership of contemporary Christian pop radio — isn’t really addressing why this movie needs to be made to get any attention, outside of again “that insular world,” for this music and the beliefs it’s espousing.

Rating: PG-13, suggestions of drug abuse, addiction

Cast: Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Kirk Franklin, Lauren Daigle, Michael Tait, Lecrae,
Toby McKeehan, Mandisa, Michael Sweet.

Credits: Directed by Andrew Erwin and Jon Erwin, scripted by Jon Erwin. A Lionsgate release.

Running time: 1:49

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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