HILLSONG: LET HOPE RISE
Directed by Michael John Warren
Plagued by release date changes in the midst of studio problems, the long-awaited documentary Hillsong: Let Hope Rise has finally hit the big screen. Following the best-selling band, Hillsong UNITED, born out of the mega-church in Australia, the film scratches the surface of artistry behind the music and the faith of the band's members. Cut around live performances of some of the band's biggest songs, a specially-crafted message at the beginning of the film alerts audience members that the film is intended as a worship experience and encourages participation.
Hillsong UNITED began as a youth worship band in Sydney, Australia. As part of the overall Hillsong Church brand, the band capitalized on the already-growing Hillsong music scene by offering more palatable and progressive songs and lyrics than its adult-friendly counterpart. Quickly growing in the late 90s from a house band to a worldwide touring group, the reach for Hillsong UNITED quickly reached Billboard best-selling status. While filling arenas like rock stars, the meat of the Hillsong UNITED story is in the focus on vision, not of themselves, as hard as that may be.
Built around the writing of the group's most recent album, Empires, director Michael John Warren, most notable as the director of mainstream docu-films for artists like Jay-Z and Nicki Minaj, delivers glimpses of Hillsong UNITED's concert at Los Angeles' The Forum and the remarkable stories of the band members' pasts. This becomes the film's most compelling ingredient. Singer Taya Smith's humble remarks about being a simple country girl is instantly moving, especially when her powerhouse vocals highlight the song "Oceans" in a bold move by Warren to include the song in its entirety.
Moments of introspective imperfections are given some weight in the overall spectacle of the film, while other notable moments involve the band visiting towns full of the less-fortunate. Warren does a good job of shaping these images as genuine acts of hope, rather than showmanship or prideful ambivalence. There is much to be desired, however, in reaching more into the back pockets of the main characters. Along with Smith, who could have easily been the entire focus of the project, lead singer Joel Houston offers proverbial hints at wisdom, which proves why his lyricism is given the last bolt of the plot. But, the story is dealt too delicately, missing out on opportune times to really peal away the layers and show a true genuineness.
The most impacting moments in the film are, of course, the music. As already mentioned, Smith's "Oceans" performance is shown in its entirety (which you have to listen to on Spotify, if nothing else), while most of the other songs get brief plays. All of the songs, however, are treated as if they are being shared in the middle of a worship service, words on the bottom of the screen and all, hence the directions at the beginning of the film encouraging a worship experience over a movie-going experience. A clever moment showing people singing "Mighty to Save" all of the world is both kitschy and powerful.
There isn't anything necessarily new about the film's backbone. But, it is refreshing to see a film about faith told in a way that is more inviting than belittling. It's a celebration of the resilience in, hope for, and love of humanity, rather than an evangelical tool of salvation. Which is a good thing.
The band members are true to themselves and their mission, which includes loving God and loving others. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Runtime: 1h 43min