A telling image in the documentary Hillsong: Let Hope Rise occurs when members of the Australian evangelical pop group, stressing out about writing new songs for an upcoming concert at The Forum in Los Angeles, look above the fireplace in their communal rental cottage and see a handwritten sign with the inscription, “Something Inspirational.”
That could have been ironically placed by any of the 12 credited band members (or “Worship Leaders” as they are labeled when interviewed by documentarian Michael John Warren) or it could simply have no deeper meaning other than being a cardboard placeholder above the hearth until the musicians felt musically moved.
Whatever the reason for its inclusion, this sign is emblematic of what Hillsong: Let Hope Rise tries to deliver in the 103 minutes it takes to tell the story of “the biggest band you’ve never heard of” hoping to spread their Pentecostal message to both fans and the unconverted.
It’s not the lack of faith-based lyrics that keeps the film from completely connecting as a documentary; there’s plenty of this in the concert footage, along with interviews with principal band members and attempts at introspection regarding their song-writing process. What Warren fails to do is make any of this either visually or narratively compelling.
The camera follows these musicians around the world and back home to reunite with their families. But, beyond watching a few of these folks raise their children, we never get to know more about who they are or why they feel as passionate about their faith as they repeatedly proselytize. Maybe these wholesome hipsters singing about their Christianity are genuinely as inoffensive while on tour and off as they appear, but I kept waiting for something controversial (or at least interesting) to happen, and it never did.
The documentary begins with the father of Hillsong musician Joel Houston talking about the beginnings of his small Sydney church (and, briefly, the child sex abuse allegations levied against the singer’s grandfather, which almost derailed it) as well as the musical ministry’s rise to global prominence, but it never delves into the youngest Houston’s private life other than to depict the frustration he feels in making sure his songs accurately share his faith.
Oddball J.D. Douglass comes across as a rather generic nerd behind his thick glasses and hipster fashion aesthetic, and muscle-bound Jad Gillies adds little to the proceedings other than his voice. The band’s producer almost presents a gripping subplot when we learn of his infant son’s open heart surgery occurring while the band was preparing to tour, but even that story is resolved and disappears almost as soon as it begins.
While the members of Hillsong are full of conviction regarding the songs they perform, the only participant who barely holds the audience’s interest is the lone female of the group, Taya Smith. She elevates both the songs and the storyline beyond vague earnestness with her stirring vocals and her testifying to the camera about her faith. But her inclusion in the group, nor her thoughts on being the only woman working and traveling with this otherwise rather bland, 20-something, Christian boy-band, are never explored.
It is not that I dislike Hillsong’s music or even begrudge their success (which includes 11 albums and songs translated into a plethora of languages to be sung around the globe). It is that, other than the earnest pop music the group produces, this documentary never makes a case for me to be moved by it beyond face value.
Sadly, I do not think I am alone in this perception. The film opens with the onscreen directive, “This film is intended as a worship experience. The filmmakers welcome you to participate.” Song lyrics are subtitled at the bottom of the screen throughout the concert footage. Yet, at no time during the Sunday afternoon showing I attended did any of the dozen other people in the audience sing along, raise their hands or even make a sound (joyous or otherwise).
If you are already a fan of the band, you knew if you were going to see this film before you even read this review. If you want to know more, you will have to dig deeper than Hillsong: Let Hope Rise offers in order to expand your understanding.
Rated PG for thematic elements.
Now playing at Regal Biltmore Grande and Epic Theatres of Hendersonville