No, really — a hilariously honest snapshot of navigating an insular community
Electric Jesus hits VOD platforms today, November 2
Electric Jesus. Well, that’s certainly a title.
The new musical comedy is set in the world of 80s Christian hair metal, following fictional amateur band “316” (as in John) as they go out on their first tour, a strange sojourn of churches, camps, and roller rinks. Brian Baumgartner (The Office) plays their blusterous manager, an obnoxious but good-natured promoter whose actual investment in the “Christian” part of Christian rock is questionable.
There’s an early scene where the band plays a church show, and it’s a really weird vibe — a preacher (Judd Nelson!) prefaces with a bizarre message and people aren’t really sure how to react to the band; some are really into it, others just sort of dumbfounded. That’s pretty much where I knew this movie was gonna hit me just right.
I’m from the same world, later generation (to put it succinctly, the Tooth & Nail era). As a 90s teen, cheesy hair bands were passe. But still, as someone in that world reading industry mags like HM and CCM, I was familiar with the artists that came before. Some of those classic Christian rock acts like Guardian, Tourniquet, DA, and Mike Knott were still around and putting out really solid music. Others like Petra were better left in the past.
Still, I knew that even the cheesiest of those 80s artists deserved much respect for blazing some rough trails. It was a hostile environment all around: normal audiences saw Christian bands as novelty acts, while the Church, gripped in Satanic Panic, thought them the work of the devil. Electric Jesus jumps headlong into that era, delivering a very funny and strange film that’s absolutely worth checking out, regardless of where you fall on familiarity with the subject matter.
The coming of age story follows the perspective of 316’s sound man, Erik, whose zeal for both music and his faith are genuine. Both are tested in the challenges of road life, as he encounters first love, difficulties with bandmates, the ugliness and fakery of the music business, and the temptation to sell out.
As someone who grew up engaged in Christian rock culture, there’s a lot here that strikes me as really honest, both good and cringe. Even though I’m of a later generation, much of this is very familiar. Electric Jesus is up front about those weird hallmarks of navigating the subculture and the Christian band experience: awkward church shows, youth group culture, flirting with girls (biblically, natch), hostile audiences, even expectations for bands to preach or give altar calls as part of their shows.
There’s a certain absurdity inherent to the whole system, expecting kids in their teens and twenties to have their lives and faith figured out and treat them like role models or ministers of the gospel, and that’s something that’s subtly commented on here.
But there were a lot of really great aspects to it all, as well. Most obviously a ton of incredible music, South Park and King of the Hill jokes notwithstanding. Lots of great memories wrapped up in concerts and hanging out with youth group pals. And even moments where the spirituality connects and you experience something deeper: worship, or enlightenment. These have all been very real for me in my own life, and the film understands and captures some essence of that. It’s a weirdly insular community, but Christian rock ultimately is not that different from any other musical subculture: people making and listening to music that strikes a chord with what they genuinely care about.
Writer-director Chris White tries to put it into words, “This immersive religious culture is difficult to explain to many of my friends today — but it’s even more difficult to explain why I loved it. The fact that something so alien to most of the world is so vivid in my memory…and kind of embarrassing to talk about now… It makes me feel odd.”
The film ultimately succeeds at putting that experience into a relatable context. While it’s honest and critical about the culture and era, it’s not judgmental of its characters, who just feel like real dudes who want to rock, nor of their music.
Not to get too mired in rehashing the plot or spoilers, but the film’s conclusion is, again, a very honest and endearing look at the past through the eyes of the present: nostalgia, memories, regrets, and new beginnings.
Quirky indie rocker Daniel Smith (he of Danielson) provides the eclectic soundtrack, which also includes original songs as well as covers of classic bands like Stryper.
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