Possibly the best and most cinematic sequence in Hillsong – Let Hope Rise is a montage that strikingly captures how the music of the Australian Evangelical church-based praise band Hillsong United touches, and unites, people all around the world.
The sequence opens with Filipino fans in Manila City crowding around before a concert, singing the band’s song “Mighty to Save” a capella, before cutting to the band on stage playing the song to sea of phone lights shining in the dark.
Then the next line is sung (in French?) by a young guitarist sitting in front of the Eiffel Tower. Subsequent lines are contributed by an African children’s choir; a couple of Asian guitarists on a lake amid snow-covered mountain in Tibet; a group of young hikers singing while hiking in the woods; a deaf woman signing in a café; a reggae group.
Some of the footage appears to have been contributed by the subjects: A woman playing a ukulele on a Hawaiian beach seems to have been filmed with a mobile phone; a biker singing (also not in English) while riding is captured with a selfie stick; a dash-cam records four dudes singing on the road.
You could shoot a similar international montage, of course, with the music of the Beatles, John Denver, Mariah Carey, or many lesser known acts. On the other hand, Hillsong United’s music is sung every week by tens of millions of people gathered by hundreds and even thousands, singing in scores of languages.
Their impact greatly exceeds their relatively under-the-radar celebrity. “We’re the biggest band you’ve never heard of,” jokes guitarist Jad Gilles. “My neighbors know I’m a Christian; they know I work for a church — but they have no idea what I just did last night.”
In the second place, what unites fans of Hillsong United’s music is more than music. The young mother singing in a dilapidated kitchen in Manila, the dudes in the car, and the African-American trio singing girl-group harmonies may never meet in this world — but they will probably all see this movie, and they will see each other not as fellow fans, but as sisters and brothers in Jesus.
Blending talking-head interviews, concert video, behind-the-scenes footage, and a bit of archival imagery, director Michael John Warren takes us from the humble beginnings of Hillsong Church, founded by senior pastor Brian Houston in a modest conference-room sized space outside Sydney over 30 years ago, to the vast Pentecostal empire it is today, with satellite churches in multiple countries on four continents.
The film’s structure, building toward a big concert at The Forum in the Los Angeles area, is a bit of a red herring, though it does lead to some humorous moments as band members struggle to polish off unfinished songs in the hours and minutes before the big show.
Disarmingly, they talk about feeling goaded to try to compete with secular acts while admitting that they don’t think they’re all that good. I really, really wish someone had asked them which mainstream artists most inspire or challenge them. (At one point, going over a melodic phrase, two players debate whether it is or isn’t a Katy Perry riff.)
They also talk, naturally, about their faith. Joel Houston, son of Hillsong Church patriarch Brian Houston, is the group’s most polished orator. Taya Smith, a relative newcomer whose emotional delivery powers the big hit “Oceans” in the film’s most extensive concert segment, speaks offstage with perhaps the most moving immediacy.
For what it’s worth, I come to Hillsong – Let Hope Rise as something of an expatriate of this world, which I left a quarter century ago when I converted from Evangelicalism to Catholicism. For me, watching the film — part documentary, part concert video, billed as a “theatrical worship experience” — is a bittersweet experience, like visiting the hometown you remember with fond but mixed feelings. You know there’s no going home again (and you wouldn’t want to), but in some way it’s still a part of who you are.
That said, most of the reservations that occurred to me while the film rolled were at least addressed in some way by the time the credits rolled.
Just when I was thinking that the emotional and spiritual intensity of the band’s act might be too inwardly focused, Joel and fellow player J.D. start talking about the inseparability of love of God and concern for the poor and outcast — and we see them visiting children in a poor community in Manila City that members support through Compassion International.
It’s one thing to sing about “how much we want to change the world,” J.D. says, “but you’ve got to actually go out and do it.”
Just when I was thinking the euphoric lyrics were too suffused with exaltation and triumph and wondering how much room the Hillsong universe allows for darkness and suffering, band members start talking about the tragedies in their own lives; the problem of the communal pressure in some Christian circles to “have it together all the time” — what it feels like to wonder how God could allow something to happen, or whether he’s there at all.
One member’s infant son born with a life-threatening congenital heart defect. Another was only ten when his sister committed suicide. Hillsong Church patriarch Brian Houston, father of Joel, talks about the devastating day a church member confronted him with the sexual abuse of children committed by his own father Frank Houston, also a pastor.
Onscreen, the Hillsong people wrestle with winsome sincerity with mystery, personal struggles and unanswered questions. “Everyone’s on a journey…does everything make sense? Absolutely not,” J.D. confesses, adding, “but I think more stuff doesn’t make sense” without God.
Wives and young children are left behind as band members go on the road for months at a time. Millions of dollars are exchanging hands, but the players and their families aren’t getting rich. In their eyes, the sacrifices they make are all to help the people touched by their music connect with God.
Is this spirit of struggle and ambiguity realized onstage? Do the fans hear it in the lyrics? It’s hard to say.
Hillsong United’s lyrics are full of broken chains and guiding light, unfailing love and ecstatic praise, consuming fire and utter surrender. There’s a lot of me-and-Jesus; the social responsibility I heard from the band members doesn’t show up in any of the songs I heard. (At one point Joel talks about wanting to write a song based on the Beatitudes; alas, the finished song is never heard.)
The most essential themes of Christian theology are present: Trinity; Incarnation; crucifixion and resurrection. Sin is mentioned only as a problem Christ has taken care of. The cross is always Christ’s to carry on our behalf; if Hillsong people are urged to take up their own cross and follow him, I didn’t hear it.
If there’s a dark side to the Hillside experience, you won’t learn of it here. A “theatrical worship experience” isn’t about to go for the throat. Online I learn that Brian Houston appears to be linked to pernicious prosperity theology. Yet his son Joel wrestles with Catholic spiritual writer Fr. Henri Nouwen alongside the Bible as he crafts lyrics.
Hillsong – Let Hope Rise didn’t make me want to jump up and clap and sing. It did make me genuinely fond of these super-sincere players pouring out their hearts, doing their darndest to be as entertaining as possible while deflecting attention to God rather than themselves. Viewed in a purely anthropological light, it may be one-sided, but it’s also genuinely moving, even to the viewer who doesn’t share the band’s world, or not entirely.
As a Catholic, while I no longer belong to this world, the people I see in this film are clearly my brothers and sisters. It’s possible I won’t entirely forget them or their music at Mass on Sunday — a thought that makes me grateful both for what I have and where I am, and also for what Hillsong United shares with their fans. Perhaps, too, it makes me a bit wistful and sad, in ways too complicated to explore at the end of a movie review.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.