“The Jesus Music”: The Erwin Brothers Document the Christian Music of the Hippies Through Contemporary Praises
In their new documentary ‘The Jesus Music’, Birmingham-born brothers Jon and Andy Erwin provide a revealing historical overview of how the contemporary Christian music industry began and how it is evolving.
Musicians such as Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant, Toby Mac and Kirk Franklin recount how it happened. The documentary will be released in cinemas nationwide on Friday, October 1. The brothers also have a feature film, “American Underdog,” starring Zachary Levi as NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, which will be released on December 25.
After years of working with cameras at sporting events for ESPN, the Erwin brothers began directing Christian music videos in 2007 and then moved on to feature films on Christian themes, such as “Woodlawn,” including including biopics on Christian musicians.
“Our breakout film was ‘I Can Only Imagine’ and we followed it up with ‘I Still Believe’,” said Jon Erwin. “It’s a world that is very important to a lot of people, including myself. I like this music. I remember a lot of those concerts and those times.
During the pandemic, the brothers who are now based in Nashville were able to reunite with nearly 100 prominent figures in the Christian music industry as concerts were closed and no one was on tour.
“This documentary is our love letter to Christian music because it’s what shaped our careers,” said Andy Erwin. “As the children of Birmingham who tried to get people to take a chance on us, the first to do so was Michael W. Smith. He came over and let us do a video for one of his songs, “How to Say Goodbye”. We filmed everything in Birmingham.
Soon Amy Grant called the brothers in Birmingham.
“Amy Grant gave us a chance to do one of her videos,” Andy said. “This has led us to be music video directors for years. Then when we got down to feature film we finally got the chance to do “I can only imagine”, it was our big hit that got us started on another stage. We owe a huge debt to these artists. Their stories and their music are what gave us a career.
The documentary focuses on how the promiscuity and drug overdoses of the 1960s turned into spiritual disillusionment.
Bushy-bearded, long-haired evangelist Lonnie Frisbee began attracting other hippies to Pastor Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, Calif., Which in 1969 became the epicenter of the Jesus Music movement. .
“When it started it was just called Jesus Music,” Jon Erwin said. “CCM, contemporary Christian music, is a modern and more commercial way of categorizing it. “
It quickly became its own industry. In 1971, Maranatha Music was founded as a non-profit ministry of Calvary Chapel and became the premier Christian music label. The folk-rock music of the time became an expression of the Christian faith sung and performed by newly converted hippies.
In 1969, Capitol Records released “Upon This Rock”, an album by Larry Norman considered to be the first Christian rock album. Norman was abandoned by Capitol but formed his own label and began to headline Christian rock festivals, most notably “Explo ’72”, where evangelist Billy Graham embraced the new music and took it to him. called Christian Woodstock. “Why would the devil have all the good music?” Norman said, summing up the movement.
“For these artists, it was born from a very organic moment in history where many exhausted hippies discovered this faith and had to sing it in the 1970s, then forged a track that did not exist”, said Andy Erwin. .
“Christian music today grew out of this movement,” said Jon Erwin. “It was a new kind of music. It was rebellious at the time. You must remember that there was a time when drums were not allowed on a church stage; guitars were not allowed. Hippies were not allowed to enter. It was this outpouring of love at the end of the sixties, the beginning of the seventies that gave birth to a new form of music. There were no Christian radio stations. There were no Christian bookstores. There was no infrastructure to sell music. They not only had to create this new sound, but also create a way to convey it to people. They had to innovate and start a business.
No one imagined how big he would become.
“The amazing story is that this first group of artists didn’t have a place for their songs to be heard and so they forged an industry from scratch,” said Jon Erwin. “These are stories of complex, imperfect, and beautiful people who accomplished the impossible together.”
Vocalist Michael Sweet of Christian heavy metal band Stryper recalls converting to Christianity after watching Jimmy Swaggart on TV, then being heartbroken watching Swaggart condemning his expression of Christian faith as the work of the devil .
Much of early Christian music was not welcome in mainstream churches, but when Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant gave it a gentler face as king and queen of Christian pop music in the 1980s, the industry has exploded in popularity.
While artists such as Andrae Crouch and Kirk Franklin helped integrate it, much of it remained classified separately as white and black Christian music.
The documentary features Franklin’s plea to break down these barriers.
Toby McKeehan, known by the stage name Toby Mac, joined Michael Tait and Kevin Max to form DC Talk in 1987, bringing Christian hip hop into the mainstream. Toby Mac wrote the 1995 hit song “Jesus Freak” which hit alternative rock radio and picked up on the derogatory term the early pioneers of Christian music were called.
“The Jesus Music” explores the backlash Grant suffered after divorcing her first husband and marrying country star Vince Gill. The documentary also explores the death of McKeehan’s 21-year-old son. Tait and Franklin reflect on racism in society. Christian singer Russ Taff discusses the effect of alcoholism on his family.
“God uses broken people to write songs that touch the broken,” McKeehan says at one point in the documentary.
Grant’s interview took place two weeks before his scheduled open heart surgery. “There’s just an almost brutal level of honesty to his interview,” Jon Erwin said. “That’s what made all the other artists do the same. “
At one point, Bill Gaither remembers Jerry Falwell telling him about the private life of Christian singers. Gaither replies that if he were to find flawless Christian artists, the stage would be empty.
Through nearly 100 interviews, the Erwin brothers woven themes of daring and vulnerability.
“Andy interviewed them,” Jon Erwin said. “They told Andy the details of their stories. What you get is this symphony of artists telling a story that has never been told before. “
Saying it in just under an hour and 50 minutes left a lot of good material on the cutting room floor.
“That was the challenge, to tell the story in two hours,” said Jon Erwin. “You could do a 10-part miniseries without even scratching the surface of the quality of that story. “
If there is enough interest, there is certainly enough material to do so at a later date, the brothers said. In the meantime, they hope people will return to the movies to see this tribute to Christian music.
“If you are a fan of Christian music, you will love this movie,” said Jon Erwin. “It’s the soundtrack of your faith. But even if you are not a fan of music, this is a love letter to entrepreneurs and dreamers and people who want their voices heard, who have something written in their hearts and burning in their soul that they want to communicate to the world. . “
Theaters showing “The Jesus Music” from Friday will include Regal Trussville, AmStar Stadium 14 in Alabaster, AmStar Stadium 12 in Oxford, Premiere Cinema 14 Tannehill in Bessemer and Premiere Cinema 16 in Gadsden.