Reviews are mixed for The Jesus Music, a documentary on contemporary Christian music (CCM) (currently in limited theatrical release). But, it's an affectionate look at a subgenre of music that, from the looks of the first weekend's box-office numbers, has a huge fan base.
The Jesus Music‘s success should come as little surprise given the international popularity of contemporary Christian music.
Premiering on 249 screens, the religious music documentary grossed an impressive $560K, which would place it as the second-best faith-based premiere in the specialty box office this year. Even more notable is that the film’s per screen average comes out to $2248, a huge number for a movie posting 200+ runs, let alone a documentary.
Filmmaker brothers Jon and Andrew Erwin, who crafted past inspirational music biopics I Can Only Imagine and I Still Believe, are ardent fans of CCM.
Starting in the late 1980s, Christian radio became a juggernaut among evangelical Christians — the film claims a current audience of 50 million such believers, though it probably overestimates the subculture.
The movie came together quickly last year, when the pandemic forced dozens of top CCM artists to stop touring. The Erwins couldn’t proceed with filming two dramas on their slate with Lionsgate. So their team member, producer Joshua Walsh, proposed interviewing these singers and bands stuck at home.
Producer Kevin Downes recalls the conversation: “Christian artists sacrifice so much to be on the road and record. Why don't we tell the story of what drives them?”
Ergo, audiences end up with a film that’s interesting, hopeful and well-crafted, if not a Ken Burns-style deep dive.
Still, moments of grace and humanity shine through. Here are three reasons to consider watching The Jesus Music.
A Story of Fame and Friendship
The Erwin Brothers brought on two top CCM artists as executive producers, who opened doors to the tight-knit community.
There’s Amy Grant, who begins as an innocent girl-next-door church singer, then hit it big when embracing an unshackled mainstream pop stage presence.
That latter move proved controversial, even more so after her 1999 divorce then remarriage a year later. Radio stations and Christian bookstores alike pulled her songs. Were it not for a good friend, she likely wouldn’t have ever returned to CCM.
That friend is Michael W. Smith, or “Smitty,” as he’s called, the other executive producer. He’s a nondescript keyboardist with a famously nasal tone to his voice, who consorts a lot with charismatic and Black Gospel artists (to the chagrin of some).
Yet one Bible verse, 1 Corinthians 4:15, comes to mind in describing him — “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers.”
Smitty is a father figure in the world of CCM. When everyone else had only judgment for those considered wayward, Smith was a listening and caring presence. His bridge-building ministry, long focused on worship, stands as an example when believers are increasingly divided.
Grief That Shakes You to the Core
Only two years ago, on October 23, 1999, Christian rap-rock-pop artist TobyMac lost his 21-year-old son Truett Foster McKeehan in an accidental drug overdose. Truett was himself an aspiring rapper who appeared on six of his dad’s albums.
Other than a brief statement and starting a foundation in his honor, TobyMac has been largely silent in discussing the grief of losing his son—until this film.
“It was a huge trust fall for Toby to talk about his son's death, because it’s still really raw,” Andy Erwin told me in a phone interview. “He talks about the wrestling match he has every day with God. How can you allow this and not intervene? Still, he chooses to believe that God loves him, and he’s good.”
TobyMac subsequently released a song titled “21 Years” that grappled with the tragedy.
"Are you singin' with the angels? / Are you happy where you are? / Well, until this show is over / And you run into my arms / God has you in Heaven / But I have you in my heart," the father sings.
A Baseline to Understand A Complex Story
The radio-friendly CCM genre has its share of critics. An episode of Seinfeld famously skewered an NYC-based positive, “safe for the whole family” station as vapid and schlocky.
Some of that criticism peeks through here. For instance, the filmmakers present how Grant faced all that backlash. But the film doesn't explore how the CCM power structure come to be, and how these high expectations about artists' personal lives might hamper their creativity.
But you can’t know the players without a program, and The Jesus Music provides a helpful overview of how CCM artists and industry insiders see themselves. The bigger questions will have to be asked and answered elsewhere.
Believers aren't perfect, and neither is the music they produce. But The Jesus Music shows the power that can be generated when they make a joyful noise.
Rated PG-13 for some drug references and mature themes, “The Jesus Music” is currently in theaters and soon on-demand.
Josh M. Shepherd covers culture, faith and public-policy issues for various media outlets. He and his wife are raising two children in Northern Virginia.