I don’t listen to Christian Rock. However, circumstances sometimes afford one the opportunity to expand one’s consciousness and break the limitations of routine. This happened to me when I was invited to screen Hillsong: Let Hope Rise about Hillsong United, the Australian Christian rock band that has globally become a phenomenon (20 million albums sold, songs translated into 100 languages, concerts to crowds of as many as 100,000, and 50 million people singing their songs every Sunday). In August they recently held sold out performances at The Barclay Center in Brooklyn, New York. Not too shabby a subject to investigate for a feature length film, thought director Michael John Warren when he heard about their global reach.
What makes this band so incredible? Nothing that is visible to the naked eye, perhaps, though their music is astounding and palpable for the effect it has on the youthful crowd that comprise Hillsong United’s audiences. Every strata of society and every ethnic group attends Hillsong United conferences and concerts. And yes, there are some older folks, too. Crystallizing what the band does to touch their fans is indescribable and words seem paltry things if one tries to clarify it; one can only recognize that “something’s happenin’ there.” Director Michael John Warren felt it at a “church” service and wanted to capture this intangible ineffable. He does in his film that chronicles Hillsong United and Hillsong Church’s rise from obscurity to what can only be inferred to be an ongoing evolutionary global happening. Warren does a masterful job of revealing their arc of development in his documentary feature, Hillsong: Let Hope Rise.
For Hillsong fans, the film is a reminder of what they already know about band members, the Hillsong Church and their powerful, revolutionary performances. Warren employs superb cinematography, edits, close-ups, zoom-ins, 360 degree panoramic shots and freewheeling camera angles and styles to solidify the heightened, live concert effects. He uses more intimate close ups and sedate shots for scenes which elucidate the band’s inner and outer journey to write and record a new album on their global tour. Warren smilingly refers to his work as a new genre of film, the “theatrical worship experience” during which audiences do spontaneously sing along and jump up from their seats to “raise the roof”with joy or seek peace and solace.
I wouldn’t even begin to characterize the film, except I would suggest that the best way to see it, is as an overall sensory experience. As with any other film one allows its emotional impact to either touch you or leave you cold; however, music impacts one on a completely different level and in Warren’s hands this music has power. Whether it will transport you to a joyful place during the excitement of the concert scenes or somewhere completely different is a matter of one’s unique preference.
Beautifully intercut with the mind blowing concert scenes are scenes of the band members’ down times, their personal commentary about themselves, and their histories and stories of the inception of the Hillsong church whose numbers thirty years ago were actually declining. And somehow amidst this trial and error of the humble, small, church beginnings, little seedlings of music which were planted, sprouted. Folks watered the shoots and the band grew as did the church. And thirty years later there is presently a mammoth tree that has spread its branches throughout the world. It is a growth effect that gobsmacks everyone including the Hillsong Church pastors, Brian Houston and Bobbie his wife, and band members featured in the film: Joel Houston, Jonathon “JD” Douglass, Taya Smith, Jad Gillies, Matt Crocker, Dylan Thomas, Michael Guy Chislett and others.
Warren presents the outer/inner workings of the band which include a marvelous insider’s view of the difficulties of song creation. He reveals the angst Joel Houston experiences in the creative process wanting to make sure the lyrics and song music resonates to touch hearts and to heal with love. Warren’s feature shows the complications of the personal journeys of various band members. He shows their unity and team work as friends and mates along the tour. What makes the synergy work is unknowable. Why they are successful one can only surmise, because they are not looking to be the rock stars they are, Warren suggests. They are concerned that they are doing their part to bring peace, joy and love by uplifting the one who is real to them, Jesus.
Warren digs deep around the soil of their various characters. What comes up is their humility, their faith, their love for each other, their mission to make sure that everyone in their path who attends conferences and concerts is touched by the Spirit of Love (embodied in Jesus), and their acts of charity helping children. Hillsong United knows beyond knowing, (Warren has the band and church pastors reference it in their commentary), that the world is filled with hurting people; pain and suffering humanity abides even though material well being may flourish. Band members have witnessed it personally and in their own sphere of influence. One band member’s sister committed suicide; another band member’s baby nearly died. Warren reveals Hillsong United members are open and honest about their imperfections and their shortcomings. It is a refreshing change up on the usual blustering, proud and arrogant Christian who is “perfect.”
What Warren unabashedly reveals time and again in various scenes showing the church’s gradual growth, is that these individuals could never have done it alone. They unified with love, forgiveness, through family and their purposeful ministry to lift and bring love and joy to all races, cultures, to any and all, accepting them as they are, with no isms, no politics. Christianity without power dynamics and dictums, exclusions, condemnations, strictures? Does such a “thing” exist? Warren revels in showing it does as he chronicles the growth of Hillsong United and Hillsong Church to global proportions. Global institutions, companies, even mainstream religious groups would sell their souls to garner such a sincere, loyal fan base. And yet, that these individuals are concerned that others should prosper and live a better, more enjoyable life experience through having a personal relationship with Jesus, Warren points out, is their main reason for keeping up the grueling schedules while missing their own families, a hardship sacrifice for a greater good.
Weird? It is their choice for good or ill, take it or leave, believe it or not. Regardless, they are doing it with a tear and a smile and jokes besides. And somehow through the lens of non-religious Michael John Warren’s camera eye, the message seems less weird, less strange. It seems crazy soulful, even cool. What a relief that somewhere, someone is not out to puff themselves up into stardom, is less self-absorbed. Amazing that they actually believe that they can bring hope where all else, in politics, religion, etc., hasn’t been able to get off the ground in helping people feel love, joy and unity with others despite their differences and divergent attitudes.
The film is refreshing on many levels. The cinematography of the concert scenes is wild and beautiful, lending power and enhancing what the songs are about. The story of the church and band is a mystery which one can credit and analyze and may be no closer to the truth of the why, but perhaps will find enjoyable in the analysis. Most importantly, what the film thematically reveals about what resonates with all divergent cultures, races and a global rainbow of people is fascinating and certainly hopeful. This must see film opens everywhere on September 16th and in select theaters earlier.