"It seems I’m always falling short of being worthy. But He still loves me." That’s an amazing lyric to be heard in a comic movie produced by MTV Films and Paramount Studios. What’s more, those dynamic words are being sung by Destiny’s Child lead singer Beyoncé. The song is sung in a church, backed by members of a gospel choir, in pure dedication to our Lord and Savior. “Did you say Paramount Studios? MTV?? Beyoncé???” Yep.
Movie-going audiences are in for an unexpected treat this September 19 when the new comedy "The Fighting Temptations" hits movie screens. The previous lyric is in the moving "He Still Loves Me," sung by Beyoncé and Walter Williams, Sr. (of the O'Jays). And it’s only one of several gospel offerings supplied by the likes of Shirley Caesar, Ann Nesby, Faith Evans, Melba Moore and Christian rap artist T-Bone.
Audiences who follow Destiny’s Child or hip hop artists such as P.Diddy and Faith Evens, may also be astonished to hear songs proclaiming "Jesus, he loves you so" and "I’m getting ready to meet the Lord."
Paramount Studios and MTV Films are releasing this musical comedy about a New York yuppie who returns to his childhood home in rural Georgia where he expects to inherit a sizeable financial endowment. The catch? In order to collect the cash, he has to take over his aunt's dismal church gospel choir. And although he has no musical ability himself, he struggles to unify the members of the small black Baptist choir and lead them to success in an upcoming gospel competition.
The film stars Cuba Gooding, Jr. ("Jerry Maguire") and Beyoncé ("Austin Powers in Goldmember"). Neither of these stars, nor most of the supporting cast, which includes the usually bombastic Mike Epps, is often associated with Gospel messages. But both the film and those that participated in its production are surprising.
“I grew up in church. But when I was 12 years old we started going to a another church where I experienced the power of gospel music,” says hot singing sensation Beyoncé Knowles. “I joined that choir for two years and this film was like going back there. There’s so much power in gospel music. These songs are full of rejoicing and happiness. They lift your spirit,” she continues, her face beaming.
The film’s producer, Loretha Jones, also grew up in church. She began her entertainment career first through her legal background, then moving into co-producing projects such as the Spike Lee-directed "School Daze." Soon her interests led her into producing other films including "The Five Heartbeats", "Meteor Man" and the television series "The Parenthood."
“My grandmother was sort of the music teacher at our church. I grew up listening to the likes of Shirley Caesar,” says Ms. Jones. “Our film begins in the 1980s. At that time, gospel was much more traditional. And Shirley Caesar sort of epitomizes that traditional sound. I just had to have her start the movie off.”
Jones continues, “As gospel has evolved over the past twenty years, it was important to try to find a way to evolve the music along with the choir. So with hip-hop artists and Beyoncé involved, you have a more contemporary feel.
“If you have any sort of message in your film, which we do, you can get it across better if you’re not hitting them over the head with it. I felt if I didn’t incorporate some contemporary rhythms, beats and sounds into the gospel, it wouldn’t feel authentic to members of the audience who follow Beyoncé or Angie Stone, or hip hop.”
Actress Latanya Richardson, who plays the film’s antagonist, Paulina Pritchett, is also a Christian and churchgoer. “I grew up in church. And I’ve seen some people who were like Paulina. You wondered how they can do that or say that and still be a Christian. But in finding the truth of who she was, I gained an understanding and knew that despite her faults, she had a personal relationship with God,” she states. “There are positive examples of what a Christian is supposed to be in our little film, but you need to show faulty people. That’s what salvation is all about,” says Ms. Richardson.
Richardson, who in real life is married to Samuel L. Jackson, further states, “I’m interested in doing a movie with a strong Christian message, but how we live together and the choices we make are the basic messages of this film.”
Hip-hop and gospel artist, T-Bone, was the most outspoken when it came to his faith and the purpose of his music. “There is so much negativity in rap music. But what we have to remember is that music in general was not created by Satan. It was created by God, Himself. Music was intended to give God glory, no matter what kind of music it was. The devil has perverted much of it, turning it around and using it to his glory. I’m trying to take it back from the enemy and use it for its original purpose – to lift up the name of Christ.”
When asked where his life was going before he met Christ, T-Bone succinctly states, “Straight to Hell.” He continued, touchingly with, “One of my best friends was shot and killed in a gang related incident. As he was lying in the grass, twitching in his blood, he told those standing over him, ‘tell everyone to wear red at my funeral.’ He died for that color. And I knew I was going to end up like that. I knew I needed to turn my life around. My parents are pastors. I went to their church and accepted the Lord into my life. And that’s when I became a ‘redeemed hoodlum.’”
T-Bone strongly, but without hostility points out, “Don’t put God in a box. Don’t say he can’t use this music. God can use whatever He chooses.” He then adds, “I want to point people to Jesus Christ. There are so many people searching. They’re involved in drugs, in gangs, in pornography, in unfaithful relationships. I want them to know that the fulfillment to that emptiness they’re trying to fill is Jesus.
Some youth group leaders may be nervous over the PG-13 content (two fairly mild obscenities and three or four expletives, but no harsh or profane language; a dance number to the song “Fever” is somewhat suggestive, but it is the only song done in such a style; there are a couple of coarse conversations referring to a woman’s backside from one comic sidekick, but mild by today’s film standards). The filmmakers, however, do their best to present a modern-day story that both a young audience and older filmgoers can appreciate, one that entertains without the bombardment of obscenity and crudity found in the majority of today’s comedies.
While the film is not without its artistic shortcomings, the pure joy of the Gospel music makes for a fun night at the cinema. Certainly, it is impossible to find any film not guilty of some objectionable word or deed, but “The Fighting Temptations” struggles valiantly to offer up positive messages. It blends together traditional music such as "Love Me Like a Rock," and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" with newer takes on the genre, including rap. But fear not hip-hop haters, "To Da River," sung by T-Bone, may be one of the most joyous, entertaining, masterfully done pieces of music you are likely to hear.
Yes, but is the Gospel preached in this film? I come back to the lyrics in "He Still Loves Me." "It seems I’m always falling short of being worthy. But He still loves me." Ain’t that the Gospel?!
"The Fighting Temptations" opens nationwide, September 19, and the soundtrack is now in stores.