Erwin Brothers on “The Jesus Music”

With stirring songs of faith, love, and hope, Jesus music rose from America’s 1960s counterculture movement to become a worldwide phenomenon. This fascinating documentary reveals the music’s uplifting and untold story — from its humble beginnings at the Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California through its transformation into the multibillion-dollar industry of Christian Contemporary Music today. Directed by the Erwin Brothers (“I Can Only Imagine”, “I Still Believe”, “American Underdog”), THE JESUS MUSIC is the definitive love letter to CCM fans that features intimate interviews with the genre’s biggest stars including Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, TobyMac, Kirk Franklin, and Lauren Daigle. With stories of trials and triumphs, the universal power of music from these artists shine through from their messages of passion, sacrifice, and redemption that inspire millions of devoted listeners.

Interviewed for Risen Magazine

Risen Magazine: Let’s talk the Jesus Music. I’m very familiar with contemporary Christian music, but I knew very little about how it got its beginning. So it was fascinating to see some of that stuff through the sixties, and especially with Calvary Chapel. Will you talk a little bit about the origins?

Andrew Erwin: I think when we set out to tell the story, we didn’t know exactly what angle we wanted to kind of take, but during COVID we had this moment in time where we were trying to figure out what stories to tell now. And every Christian music artist was off the road at the same time. And so we just presented the idea to Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant of, “Hey, is this interesting?” And they said, “Not only is it interesting, but we’d like to tell it with you. We’d produce it with you.” And so we started tracing the origin back of where did this music begin for Christian contemporary music. And when we got to the seventies, it was fascinating because we knew some of the stories of the Jesus movement itself. We did not know how it impacted music.

And so these kids that had come out of the sex, drugs, and rock and roll and really kind of burned out on the free love movement and encountered real love with this spiritual awakening with Jesus, they were already kind of called freaks. And so they start being called Jesus freaks and the church didn’t really know what to do with them, but they just had their music. And then there was this one little church out in California that Chuck Smith, the pastor, said, “Not only do we want you in our church, but we want you on stage to sing your music.” And it was this seminal moment that happened when the music found its voice. And then just to trace that kind of crazy dreamers, there’s no industry. There was no business plan. It was just these kids singing about what they had experienced. And then to see that transform into the music that we all love today was just fantastic to kind of get into.

RM: I loved seeing in the film was the role that Billy Graham played kind of as an endorsement in saying, “Hey, if it’s reaching the masses, let’s kind of welcome this.” Jon, maybe talk a little bit about that.

Jon Erwin: Billy Graham is like the Obi One Kenobi of this story, right? People don’t realize this, but this music was incredibly controversial at the time. It was completely new. I think one of the things that I’ve learned is anything that has been institutionalized is afraid of what’s new. All the way back to Jesus. He fought this. And I think that the church was just afraid of it, much of the church, was afraid of the music. And that fear manifested itself in different ways. But I think ultimately it was just the newness of it and the unconventional nature of the music and this whole uprising and the seventies where there was so much change. These kids, they found Christ and they wanted to infuse what they had found into the music that they loved.

And so there was this fusion of faith and pop culture, and led to this new form of music that the church didn’t know what to do with. And it confounded all the stigmas of the time or the stereotypes. And so there was a lot of fear. And it took someone really putting their reputation on the line to bless the music. And that happened twice. The first of which was Dallas, Texas at Explo ’72, a 100,000 kids filled a stadium. And Billy Graham, who had sort of grown out of his hair and gotten a tan and looked a little hippie-ish himself, blessed the music. And that was the first moment of legitimacy to say, “God is in this. Even if you don’t understand it, God is in it. And it’s working.”

And I don’t know if Christian music would have grown into what it is today or endured it if it hadn’t been for Billy Graham. And the funny thing is he did it again with DC Talk and Michael W. Smith at the youth rallies. And it’s not in the film, but I remember talking to Greg Laurie… Because he was on the board, the BGA board at the time. That was an incredibly controversial decision. There was a ton of tension of whether he should do this, but that’s real leadership. And so whether it’s Chuck Smith putting love song on the stage of the church at Calvary Chapel and stories that we couldn’t even… There was so much controversy there because the hippies were coming in without shoes. And the Board of Elders was mad and he ripped the carpet out of the church and said, “I don’t care. I want these kids here.” There’s some really cool stories of leadership, of people that said, “God’s in this.” And a metaphorical passing of the baton from one generation to another. And Billy Graham, I had no idea. It’s unbelievable the influence of that man in American life and politics and society and music. And I think it’s amazing to see even now how we don’t fully realize how he used his influence.

RM: You had mentioned DC Talk. That was one of the parts of the film that fascinated me. I love the authenticity and the willingness that you were able to get all three guys on there. And we hear from Michael Tate. And we hear what Toby Mac has to say. What was it like? How did you approach, “Hey guys, can we have this conversation?” And on camera.

Toby McKeehan (TobyMac) in The Jesus Music. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Lionsgate

AE: That one was nerve wracking, because that was the music I came in on. I remember the first time I heard Jesus Freak, and I heard that album I was a freshman in college. And I was just like, “What is this? This is incredible.” And so to sit down with Toby in the room where that album was recorded to do his interview was just fantastic. I mean it was just, for me I was geeking out, but I was really intimidated. As we got in the interview, Toby, every few minutes, would stop and be like, “Is that the question you want to ask? Or is that light in the right place? Or what’s the camera angle on me?” And he kept pushing those buttons, just seeing, “Okay, what’s the angle here?” And about 20 minutes into the interview, he stopped. And he said, “Okay, I’ve never really shared this before.”

And he just really kind of went there and gave a really raw, authentic interview. And then the same with Michael Tate. And then Kevin Max was the third member that definitely everybody remembers his voice. I mean, it’s like the David Bowie of our music genre. We kept talking to Kevin like, “Do you want to do it?” He’s like, “I don’t know.” And then finally he’s like, “Okay, I’ll do it.” And he sat down and just gave this candid interview that is incredibly charming. And so to tell their story, to understand just the massive amount of friction within that band that created such great music, and to understand sometimes that was the necessity to create great art is just a lot of conflict. And those guys, a fascinating case study. And I think it’s probably one of the most authentic interviews they’ve given that I was a privilege to be a part of.

RM: It was so rewarding as a fan to just be able to kind of peel some of those layers back and see what it took. And yeah. Music that has impacted, and continues to still impact, which I also loved seeing Kirk Franklin and going back to his childhood, back to him with the piano. I mean that was so moving, and sadly, still so relevant with the culture of America today.

Kirk Franklin in The Jesus Music. Photo Credit: Lionsgate

AE: I think with Kirk, he’s one of the ones that I respect the most, and we were nervous to sit down and talk with him cause he’s just such an icon. And so the interview was set up for us with Bart Miller from Mercy Me. He’s good friends with Kirk. And I knew Kirk just in passing, but didn’t know him well. And so I said, “Bart, could you ask Kirk if he’d want to be a part of this.” So Bart reached out to him, and Kirk said, “Absolutely, I’d love to.” So we went down to Dallas to interview him. And then Kirk, when he got there for the interview, he walks in with big sunglasses on. He’s like, “Okay, ground rules. Nobody looks me in the eye.” And then I’m like, “Oh my gosh, this is going to be bad.”

And then he starts laughing. He is like, “Bart made me do that.” Like, oh, you’re good. So then we got into the interview and I just said, “Kirk, I want this to be in your words. Just help me understand your bridge between multiple worlds. Between traditional gospel and CCM, but also, secular hip hop and Christian music in general. And so tell me, what is it like to be that bridge between worlds?” And he said, “We just talked about the tension on the bridge and just some of the struggles between the racial divides that just kind of naturally exist, that chasm between worlds.” And we explored that in their own words. And I think it’s a very raw and authentic kind of conversation that happened between him and Michael Tate and Mandisa, Lecrae, and a bunch of other artists that I hope shed some light on an ongoing issue of the church needing to become more one. And so, it was exciting to kind of go into those topics.

THE JESUS MUSIC hits theatres Friday, October 1

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