‘The Jesus Music’ a Definitive Love Letter to Contemporary Christian Music Fans
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With their roots in producing contemporary Christian music videos, movie directors Jon and Andy Erwin were highly anticipating the release of I Still Believe, a heart-tugging biopic about the life of Christian singer Jeremy Camp in early 2020. But as soon as the opening night curtain rose it quickly unfurled due to the outbreak of the coronavirus. To their chagrin, the movie closed after just three days.
Adrift and without much of a plan for their next move, the brothers known for I Can Only Imagine, Woodlawn, and Moms Night Out quickly realized they didn’t want to sit idle. Rather than wait for the national health landscape to clear, the Alabama-bred brothers decided they would move forward with a project where a large film crew wouldn’t be needed. They would make their first documentary.
Calling it their love letter to contemporary Christian music, the Erwin Brothers are set to release The Jesus Music, a documentary about a 1960s counterculture movement that rose to become a worldwide phenomenon this weekend.
With up close and personal interviews from more than 100 musical artists who have helped shape this genre of music from its humble beginnings in southern California to the present day worldwide worship movement, The Jesus Music features Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, TobyMac, Kirk Franklin, Steven Curtis Chapman, Lauren Daigle and many more.
I recently spoke with co-director Andy Erwin about the universal power of this music and the artists who have influenced millions through the years with their message of Christ’s love and His sacrifice.
I have been covering this genre of music for 20 years, and The Jesus Music is a film that I think should have been made a long time ago. What was the inspiration or catalyst for making this documentary?
With what you're saying, Chris, it was the heartbeat of what we've all felt for a long time too. Our whole career came out of Christian music because we directed music videos for years. Michael W. Smith was the first person to take a chance on us as kids from Birmingham, Alabama, and let us do music videos for him. Ultimately that led to, I Can Only Imagine, which was our breakout hit. It's something that I feel like is really needed. When we sat down with Steven Curtis Chapman I just asked him the question, for those in this industry that have led the race for several laps, what does that moment feel like for you to turn around and hand the baton to fresh legs? He got emotional and said, “It's been the hardest part of my career because in Christian music we don't look back a lot. So, for those of us that have had a moment of impact for a long time, having handed that baton off, you're wondering where do I fit now?” To take a look back was a tremendous treat for us, to kind of have this film be a love letter to the music that shaped our lives and our careers.
So, we reached out to Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith and asked, is this interesting? And they said, not only is it interesting, but we would produce that documentary with you. Not many people knew it at the time, but Amy was about a month away from having her heart surgery that everybody knows about now. She said, I want to do the interview now rather than later. And so, we actually set up the camera outside the window of her house so that we protected her from any kind of COVID exposure. We had a two-way intercom and interviewed her through the window of her house. It was one of the most raw and honest interviews I've ever heard a Christian music artist give. It just infused everyone with that same energy. We ended up interviewing about a hundred different artists and traced the movement all the way back to its origins in 1970 California, the beginnings of the Jesus Movement, which was incredibly romantic.
I love how you put the film together, with early acts like Larry Norman and Love Song, the 1980s of Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, and Stryper, and then progressing to DC Talk, Newsboys, Kirk Franklin in the 1990s, into the worship movement of today. Yet, you were able to seamlessly cross-reference various eras when it was appropriate. Was that by design?
What we really did is we tried to focus in on these key figures who served as our guides through these eras. These people were Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Kirk Franklin and TobyMac. Then we take these nice little rabbit trails, like Michael Sweet from Stryper and the worship movement. And then we take a look at some of the more modern artists now with Lauren Daigle, for KING & COUNTRY, and Lecrae. But the idea that we kind of explored that centralizes everything, it's not necessarily a chronological order of the events, but the idea of exploring the trailblazer spirit. I think Chuck Girard (Love Song) says in the documentary, “We didn't know we were trailblazers. We were just making the music. We had no clue that we were doing anything that would have a long lasting impact.
We decided we were going to create a trail where there wasn't one before. That's incredibly rebellious and incredibly romantic. There's these trailblazers that did that over and over again, whether it was the Larry Norman's and the Love Songs up front, or it was the Amy Grants, Michael W. Smiths, or the Kirk Franklins and TobyMacs, and then the worship movement is continuing to blaze those new trails. And that's what unites 50 years of music.
As you mentioned, Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith are executive producers on this project. For you and Jon (Erwin), how important was it to get their buy-in or blessing on this film?
They're definitely the king and queen of the ball. There's three individuals that you have to get the sign off to do anything about Christian music and that's Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith and Bill Gaither. And so, to kind of get all three of those to say, this is good, we want to be a part of this. That was important. And then once their stamp of approval was on it, everybody signed up. They were like, we want to do it. That first interview that Amy gave and then Michael gave one equally captivating, it laid out a roadmap for us. For us to get a chance to honor her and Michael W. Smith, who was the one that gave us our start, to have their buy-in and feel that they're proud of it, I'm super satisfied with that.
I see Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith as a bridge of sorts between what I will call the classic Christian acts of the early 1970s juxtaposed against the MercyMe’s and for KING & COUNTRY’s of today. Do you see them as that bridge bringing Jesus music full circle?
Yeah. When Jesus music kind of broke out, it was a bunch of kids that were hippies that were kind of self-identified freaks that had burned out on the sex, drugs, and rock and roll. They were kind of like, what do we do? What's next? And they had this radical encounter with Jesus Christ and the Jesus Movement was born. They found that love, but the Church didn't know what to do with them. They didn't really know where they fit in the church and they didn't know where they fit in mainstream culture. But they had their music and this love that they had discovered. And this church out in California, Calvary Chapel, was the first to kind of come along and say, “You have value, let's do something with this.” But out of it, there was no roadmap. There was no plan. There was no industry. And what the industry needed was a star. And onto that stage steps this young 16-year-old kid, Amy Grant, who was the best of us, and her keyboard player, Michael W. Smith. The two of them were the first to legitimize this music as having a crossover appeal and being more than this little tiny niche called “church music”. And those were the two that cemented this as the industry that we know today. So, yes, they were the bridge between the church and mainstream culture.
Are there any artists that you wanted to interview, but couldn't due to availability or in some cases the person has passed away?
Yes. There was several of those. I think if we could have actually interviewed Larry Norman and Andrae Crouch, those were definitely two. We interviewed Larry’s son for the documentary and then we interviewed a ton of people that knew him. There's an extensive moment about Larry. Larry was just such a complex individual and wrote great music. He was the first real music artist to come out of Christian music and it influenced everybody from DC Talk on down the line. I think Larry would have been a fascinating interview. I think Rich Mullins would be another one. And then, Andrae Crouch. Those are the three that we couldn't interview due to the fact they're no longer with us. Then, there's several others that if Jesus music has its moment, there's a whole other series that we'd like to explore that really delves into the more modern representation of Christian music and how it has evolved. There's a whole different storyline. We want to chase that, but we haven't done that yet.
Who do you believe is the most underrated Jesus Music artist that doesn’t get their just due?
I think for us that one was Stryper. We really go into it in the documentary. We gave them their moment. Michael Sweet is a legend. Stryper was huge, but we kind of gloss over them in Christian music. And he went on to be the lead singer of Boston and had a lot of other huge opportunities. But when we reached out to them, he said, “I've got a complicated history with contemporary Christian music. I don't really know where I fit. A lot of people don't know what to do with us. But if Michael W. Smith is involved, out of all the artists over the years, that were kind to me, Smitty was one of one. He was one that really embraced us, loved on us and has continued to do so. If Michael W. Smith is involved, I want to be involved.” And I think for this documentary to explore their storyline, it’s one of my favorites.
It’s funny because when we sat down with Joel Smallbone from for KING & COUNTRY, we asked him who influenced their music. And I thought he was going to say Coldplay or somebody like that. And he said, “I remember being a kid in Australia and seeing Stryper perform for the first time. Everything from their theatricality to their outfits, to how they danced around stage and energized the crowd made me want to do that.” So, he's like, “If you want to understand for KING & COUNTRY, you've got to understand Stryper." And all of a sudden it clicked for me. I'm like, holy cow, I see it now. That was pretty cool
Is there any one event in the history of contemporary Christian music that you see as the turning point from obscurity to coming into its own?
Yeah, I think the biggest moment involved Billy Graham and the seminal moment that was Explo 1972 in Texas. About 200,000 people descended on Dallas to have what was labeled the Christian Woodstock. And up until that point, mainstream church culture as a whole, especially when it came to pastors, was that they were really afraid of this music. They didn't know what to do with it. And Billy was the first one to step in and say, “No, not only is this good, but we're going to embrace it.” So, he assembled this eclectic stage of artists, everybody from Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson to Larry Norman, to Andrae Crouch, to Love Song, to Rita Coolidge. It was just an amazing lineup of music that he put in front of the crowd and said (to the musical artists), “You're going to sing your songs. And then I'm going to preach my message.” And it was a seismic event. And at that point many pastors said, “If Billy's putting his stamp of approval on this music that was kind of born out of rebellion, being good and being useful now, then we're going to embrace it as church culture.” And it was an amazing moment for Christian music.
After people have seen the film, The Jesus Music, what would you like to see audiences get out of the viewing experience? What's your greatest hope for it?
I think for me and Jon, this documentary is our love letter to Christian music. It's not for the fans, it's for us because we are the fans. We love these people. We love why they do what they do. And we love the impact of the music. So, it's just to remind us of the importance of the music. In a period of time, that for about a year and a half this music was taken away from us. We couldn't see it in concerts. We couldn't go and sing together. In some places, we couldn't even do that in church. This film reminds ourselves of the importance of this music and to put it out in a communal environment of theaters to say, let's celebrate the music that's changed our lives So, to do that, I hope it goes with a deep appreciation and reminds us to keep singing.
Watch a Trailer for The Jesus Music:
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