By Bob Marovich
Hillsong – Let Hope Rise, the music documentary about the history and phenomenon that is Sydney, Australia’s Hillsong, “the biggest band you’ve never heard of,” hits U.S. theaters September 16.
JGM spoke by telephone recently with Joel Houston of Hillsong UNITED and the film’s director, Michael John Warren, whose prior projects include documentaries on Jay-Z and Nicki Minaj and the large-scale event film Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway.
JGM: How did the idea of the film come about?
MJW: To be candid, the idea came from some producers who brought it to me. I’ve made a lot of music documentaries in my life, but what became apparent to me was that this was a different kind of music documentary. [Hillsong UNITED] is selling out arenas and making hit albums that go across the world, but the root of what they are doing is different from a pop artist. Joel and the band are writing songs to connect people to Heaven. As a storyteller, I thought that was an exciting narrative. Plus, I love music more than I love film, and once I realized the music was good, I was all in.
JH: My reason for wanting to do the film was that maybe some people who might never come and see what we do, or buy a record, would take that first step and experience something a little bit deeper that they thought they would. When I heard that [Michael John Warren] was directing, I was excited because I knew he would ask the questions that a lot of people might want to ask. I don’t know if we are going to give people answers to all of them, but the film will at least allow people to look a little deeper.
JGM: At what moment did you realize that Hillsong UNITED was going to be bigger than you ever anticipated?
JH: We’re not an overnight success by any stretch of the imagination. We didn’t get thrust into the spotlight. We grew along with [Hillsong]. This thing was bigger than any one of us. We just let God allow the process of time to be the thing that helped us to become who He called us to become.
JGM: Who were your initial musical inspirations?
JH: I hated music as a kid! My parents forced me to play piano when I wanted to go out skateboarding with my friends! It wasn’t until I was eleven years old, and there was this little band called Nirvana. Of course, I wasn’t allowed to listen to it, so I took my Carmen cassette tape that I was allowed to listen to, and I recorded [Nirvana’s] Nevermind over it.
It was the first time I experienced the power of music. Here is a guy [Kurt Cobain] and a band and a sound that is connecting with an entire generation. Every single kid I knew was connecting in some way to that music. I didn’t even necessarily like the music, but I felt something.
I think that’s the beauty of music. For every single subculture and for every single experience in the human emotional gamut, there’s a sound or a chant or a song that meets people in that spot—from celebration to pain. God uses the mystery of art, something so universal and yet so specific, to connect the dots which, ultimately, lead to the human heart. God in Heaven created it.
MJW: One of the defining themes of Hillsong UNITED and Joel’s music is that they write Christian songs that aren’t like, ‘Hey, Jesus, Yeah Yeah Yeah.” There’s darkness, there’s struggle, there’s cracks in what they do.
JGM: Did the music of the Assemblies of God, with which Hillsong Church is associated, inspire you in any way?
JH: I hated the church music when I was growing up! Being from Australia, we were kind of removed from a lot of [gospel music]. I remember experiencing DC Talk in the early days, and I remember thinking that was awesome, because I was into MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice. But the artist that probably defined us the most was a Christian band out of England called Delirious?. They kind of flew under the radar but they sounded like the music we were into at the time. There was a purity and honesty to their music that connected with us and with people across the world.
We get to write songs that are honest for us. And if they’re coming from a place that’s deep, it’s highly likely that God will connect the songs to the deepest place in others. It might look different and sound different, but at the end of the day, that’s the beauty of music. I love God for how enormous and universal He is. He’s all about the deepest parts of the individual person.
JGM: Is it possible that Let Hope Rise is the first film of its kind?
MJW: Obviously there are elements of this film that have been done before, but this is the first film that I know of that is like this: it’s not technically a concert, it’s a worship.
We were screening the film outside of Hollywood. I’ve seen a lot of concert films in my day, but when Joel invites the crowd to participate and runs out during “No Other Name,” the whole theater stood up and started singing! You can go see any concert film, the best concert film ever made, and that doesn’t happen. So there hasn’t technically been a film like this ever before. I have a dream that this film plays at a handful of theaters for years and people go there every Sunday and that’s their church experience.
JGM: Will you be entering Let Hope Rise into any film festivals?
MJW: No. We’re going straight to the people.
JH: We’re not into the awards!
MJW (laughs): Well, I might be, but Joel’s not!
JGM: What do you think will surprise longtime fans of Hillsong the most?
JH: I think they are going to go, ‘Wait, they’re normal!” I think that’s the best thing that can come out of this, because a great challenge of what we do, being on platforms and being in front of people, is that we make superheroes out of ministers of the gospel. There’s only one superhero in the story, and it’s Jesus.
When you peel the layers back a little bit, people will go, “Ah, they’re not too dissimilar from me and my friends, or me and my family,” and that would be a really cool thing. We’ve been trying to say this all along: This is who we are. We’re not that awesome!
Check out the film trailer below: