It’s highly possible that you don’t know that Hillsong United exists. The band members themselves confess this in “Hillsong – Let Hope Rise” — a new concert-based documentary from director Michael John Warren (“Jay-Z: Fade To Black”) — when guitarist Jad Gillies explains, “We’re the biggest band you’ve never heard of. My own neighbors have no idea what I did last night.”
What Gillies “did last night,” to be clear, is sell out an arena like The Forum in Los Angeles. And before that, the Hollywood Bowl. And before that, the O2 Arena in London and other very large concert venues all around the world. The 12-person outfit, having formed in 1998 as the music ministry of Australian megachurch Hillsong, has released dozens of albums, moved millions of units, and, until their distribution deal with Capitol Records (they can be seen in the film performing atop the label’s iconic tower in Hollywood), did so without the attention of the mainstream media.
The band refers to their shows as “worship” and to themselves as “worship leaders,” but they are rock stars, with a massive audience and the hits to prove it. Their single “Oceans” was 2014’s Number One song on the Christian charts for over 50 weeks, and without any lyrical concession to crossing over (think Amy Grant’s “Baby Baby” if you remember the American pop charts of 1991), they crossed over anyway, cracking the Billboard Hot 100.
Hillsong United makes praise music, a subset of the Contemporary Christian Music genre that is, in the words of main songwriter and vocalist Joel Houston (son of Hillsong Church founder Brian Houston), “written for people to sing, not just listen to.” It’s music for believers to use as prayer, often in a group setting.
Hillsong United’s take on this style is skillful and effective, the lyrics a nearly perfect synthesis of Biblical allusion, thoughtful inward reflection (in one scene, Houston is shown writing lyrics with a book by the late French contemplative philosopher-priest Henri Nouwen by his side) and banal references to “spirits soaring.” The lyrics are married to a musical fusion of Coldplay and Sigur Ros, with an occasional crowd-pumping detour into EDM. It’s not necessarily innovative, but it is insistent, effective, and quite often, moving.
Warner and editor Edward A. Bishop (“Park Bench with Steve Buscemi“) structure the film around the band’s origin, inserting charming archival footage of awkward beginnings. They follow the band on tour to a variety of countries, including plenty of performance footage, each song accompanied by onscreen lyrics, inviting multiplex audience participation.
Building to what is essentially a non-climax — a countdown to a performance at Los Angeles’s Forum — the film attempts to build tension around the writing of new music. Will the band be ready to perform new songs at The Forum? Will they have enough new material for the next album? Of course they will. Offsetting this lack of strong narrative involves leaning in with behind-the-scenes material involving the band members’ distinctly self-deprecating humor and their conscientious, low-key approach to stardom and to everyday life struggles involving anxiety, grief, and family worries.
The film’s real drama revolves around the tension that might affect religious artists most: how to be legitimate rock stars, with all the self-aggrandizing, post-Bono gestures attendant to that life, while at the same time understanding that their priority is to deflect attention away from themselves and onto the collective belief in God. If the band members have no deep or definitive answer to that question, they are, to a person, self-aware enough to know that it’s an ongoing concern, one where they can be misunderstood every time they fall to their knees in prayer in front of 20,000 people. Cut to vocalist Taya Smith, a front-and-center presence in the band’s shows, delivering the self-doubter’s mantra, “Who am I to be doing this?”
The doc climaxes organically, and somewhat daringly, at The Forum as Warren and Bishop decide include the monster hit “Oceans,” sung by Smith, in its nearly nine-minute-long complete state, a suitably big Big Finish. And then it’s back to the daily task of figuring out how to be the opposite of famous. They’re an affable bunch, sincere almost to a fault, with attitudes seemingly allergic to the ugly, know-it-all stridency that marks much too much of the current conservative Evangelical cultural sphere. Maybe it’s the Aussie in them.
Whatever the reason, “Hillsong — Let Hope Rise” stands out against that harsh tone of much recent Christian indie cinema by being a winning, friendly, and at times moving film. It may even be the one that properly reaches out beyond its built-in audience, accomplishing the goal of Evangelicals everywhere: actual evangelism.