Hillsong: Let Hope Rise Has World-Changing Power
- Shawn McEvoy Director of Editorial
- 2016 15 Sep
Writing worship music is hard! So is serving the Lord at times. What's easy is sitting back for the experience of Hillsong: Let Hope Rise, where we're invited not only to praise Jesus, but to get an intimate view into what it looks like to be authentic, unapologetic, hopeful Christians in a world longing for God. 4.5 out of 5.
A "theatrical worship experience" is how the opening title slide describes this movie, but it's also a well-crafted documentary about some very gifted, very humble servants of the Lord. Unless you attend a church that still sings strictly out of hymnals, you've sung Hillsong United songs during worship. But what you may not know is how the band came together and the toll it takes to produce the music that leads so many to raise their voices in praise.
Joel Houston, son of Hillsong pastor Brian Houston, is front and center in letting us know the history of both the Australian church and its worship band ("the biggest band you've never heard of"). The documentary follows the band in the period leading up to a major concert at The Forum in Los Angeles as they also feel the pressure to create original songs for a new album. Many of your favorite songs are performed, and we also get to see how the group interacts with the community at tour stops, particularly in the slums of Manila. Each worship leader shares stories of their own life, faith and challenges in a mix that may just leave you wondering what you can do for the Kingdom starting today.
If you're tempted to think that Hillsong United is just another Christian band, in it for the money or personal glory, or in any way fake, you won't find any evidence of that here. But it's not because director Michael John Warren doesn't ask the right or the hard questions of them. The care that goes into the lyrics, from simply generating them (hint: God doesn't just download them to Joel's brain on Joel's timeline; Joel explains he has to put in the work) to ensuring they are theologically sound, is particularly interesting. Some lyrics may rhyme or sound cool but aren't good fits because, as Joel puts it, what sets a worship band apart is the realization that, "We're putting words in people's mouths... We're writing songs for others to sing." But would any of them trade the slog for fame? Riches? No. Taya Smith, with whom you may just fall in love, explains she has sung secularly, but that never offered "the joy factor." Another member believes they "just aren't good enough" to play for their own glory, so the temptation is removed.
The coolest part of the whole film is basically a music video of Mighty to Save that pieces together people from all walks of life, from all over the world, singing along to a verse of the song before moving on to the next person or group. As for the rest of it, Warren always keeps things interesting by advancing a rough plot of the LA concert looming closer, while intercutting worship music and member testimonies in just the right measure. About those testimonies: they almost all work, individually and in concert. That's because each Hillsong United worship leader has struggles (family commitments, family member suicide, child illnesses, financial concerns (they work for a church, after all)), but they all truly believe they do this for the Lord and he will carry them through. "We're at our best when we're broken," Houston says.
Okay, the film can drag in a few places. While Warren shuffles the deck of his scenes and timelines adeptly, a bit more editing could have kept things flowing better. As is, I wonder if some youngsters might fidget (even though the film is appropriate for all audiences), or whether some adults might long for them to just get to Oceans already!
Speaking of Oceans, I'll risk admitting that I'm that one person who has never really connected with that song (I'm more of a Glorious Ruins guy myself; sadly, that didn't make the movie's playlist). So when Oceans got the full-song treatment I might have checked my watch... until Smith was asked what kind of feedback she has received for her vocals in that song. Her tears, humility and explanation of what the high note means to her are one of the film's treasures.
Finally, let me just address one criticism I've seen that the film and Hillsong United are "one-note." It's true. At least, it's true about the band. They absolutely have a distinct sound and genre, with lots of crescendo, well-timed upbeats and ethereal synths. Nothing they create is intended to entertain. Their desire is clear and the music is crafted with one thing in mind: to introduce people to Jesus and bring them into the presence of their King. This is the rare case in which "one-note" is a compliment.
Christian Worldview Elements / Spiritual Themes
A couple of band members talk about wanting to make music that is of a similar quality to anything the world might produce. It's a wonderful goal, one that many Christian movies are only beginning to achieve. This is a film that all at once informs, encourages, prods and leads the heart to praise. The band evangelizes, and so does the movie - a claim not all Christian films can make with a straight face. Bible verses are read, prayers uttered, a mission stated and acted upon. One band member describes how life in Jesus doesnt leave him without questions, but "there are fewer questions than without Him." Most Hillsong United members describe the 'cost' or sacrifice of being part of a band which travels the world, making for an interesting dichotomy to how we usually view bands. Other themes of love, purpose and doing what you can where the Lord has placed you in the moment are all touched upon. Joel admits his biggest fear is that his music won't be impactful; we realize that's because he sincerely feels that praise music by definition will inspire and lead people to the cross. So if it didn't accomplish that...
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers)
- MPAA Rating: PG for some thematic elements
- Language/Profanity: Clean. One band member does wear a shirt identifying herself as a "dork"; in old footage of some male band members as youth, one taunts another as a "wuss" and a "girl" to goad him into a comedic stunt.
- Sexuality/Nudity: Pastor Brian Houston describes the day he had to confront his own father, himself a pastor, about multiple allegations of child abuse (the abuse was reportedly sexual in nature, but here is only referred to as 'child abuse').
- Violence/Frightening/Intense: One band member shares photos - one rather hard to look at - of his infant son's open heart surgery and resulting scar; another member describes how his older sister killed herself.
Drugs/Alcohol: Some interviewees testify to being freed from drug abuse after becoming Christians and joining Hillsong Church; one worship leader describes how her friends will sometimes go out and get 'smashed' and then wonder if there's got to be more to life.
The Bottom Line
RECOMMENDED FOR: Just about everyone. There are those who won't love this movie, but that will only be through disagreement with the gospel message or an extreme, overdone distaste for modern praise music. The legitimacy and authenticity of the band and its members, however, are undeniable.
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: If your kids don't attend worship at church, maybe leave them at home. Hymn purists might come to the theater kicking and screaming, but honestly, even they will find something to love here.
Hillsong: Let Hope Rise, directed by Michael John Warren, opened in theaters September 16, 2016; available for home viewing December 20, 2016. It runs 103 minutes and stars Joel Houston, Taya Smith, Jad Gillies, Michael Crocker, Jonathan 'JD' Douglass, Dylan Thomas, Brian Houston and Bobbie Houston. Watch the trailer for Hillsong: Let Hope Rise here.
Shawn McEvoy is the Managing Editor for Crosswalk.com and the co-host of CrosswalkMovies.com's Video Movie Reviews.
Publication date: September 16, 2016