A few months ago, on Saints and Cinema, we had a conversation with writer/director Chris White and John J. Thompson about the film Electric Jesus (for rent on all digital platforms), which ended its festival run at the Newport Beach Film Festival in October. Something Chris said has stuck with me since, and it was related to the fact that Electric Jesus is not a rendering of Christian rock or Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) in shades of irony. Irony creates distance, allowing us to glance sideways at people and their lives. It intentionally prevents us from having or showing empathy. And, Chris said, he believes empathy—being able to enter into other people’s lives even without sharing their experiences or beliefs—is central to great art.
The reason that part of the conversation (among a lot of other fruitful topics that came up) has remained with me is that it is so rare to see an unironic movie, especially about something, like Christian rock music, that has been so maligned and so easily dismissed. Everything is irony now. Sincerity exists only to be mocked and satirized. That distance that we preserve between ourselves and any of our interests is a social media necessity. Like perpetual teenagers, we cannot ever be too invested in anything except the current handful of socially approved issues—which, in their turn, will become more fodder for mockery and ironic dismissal.
But Electric Jesus, even when it has its tongue in its cheek, is sympathetic to its characters, to their lives, and to those who grew up listening to any of the 66 bands (a list provided by Thompson, who served as music supervisor for the film) that Erik (Andrew Eakle) rattles off in his “interview” to run sound for the Christian hair metal band 316. The rest of the actors, especially the band members Michael (Wyatt Lenhart), Cliff (Gunner Willis), Jamie (Will Oliver), Scotty (Caleb Hoffmann, who drove straight through from North Dakota to be at the screening in Newport Beach!), and Sarah (Shannon Hutchinson, who, with Andrew Eakle, is the heart of the movie) lend a genuine innocence and excitement to their characters, even though they did not grow up with the bands mentioned or their music. Even Brian Baumgartner as Skip Wick refuses to be simply a parody of a certain kind of jaded or hypocritical music promoter.
Though my brother Jay and I came of musical age after the original Jesus Music era of the ’70s, you could find us in the late ’80s and all of the ’90s searching the new music, listening to demos, and rifling through the clearance cassettes at the two or three “Christian book stores” in Olympia, Washington. As Jay said on the podcast, this movie is about our early musical life, although as fans.
This is reflected in the coda at the end of the movie, which, I have to admit, felt on first viewing as if it had been tacked on. But what is necessary about that final scene or two is how accurately it mirrors the lives of people who lived through this very particular and unique era in musical history. (See John J. Thompson’s book for more information.) The former band members still have this experience in common, even if they have taken the same diverse paths that many people who grew up with this music have taken. (Consider the Facebook group “90s Christian Music Recovery Group” for the truth of this observation.)
I would like to dwell on all the semi-inside jokes in the movie; the fears of Christians about rock music in general, fears about Christian rock and pop musicians “crossing over,” and the famous ones who did; the relatability of the Christian music shows at camps, churches, and roller skating rinks; the language of this particular subset of music and the double entendres it created. You can listen to our podcast episode for a lot of that.
But I would suggest, instead, that you watch Electric Jesus, enjoy it, laugh along—whether you grew up in the midst of that world or have no idea that it even existed. It gently pokes fun at some of Christian rock’s absurdities, while subtly and surprisingly holding out the possibility of profundity (even in a song like “Barabbas”!) And maybe, as well, it can teach us to be a little less ironic and a little more empathetic.