Ranking Every Movie I Saw In 2016, #21: Hillsong: Let Hope Rise

This is an unusual film. I mean, first of all, it’s a Christian film and it’s good, which means it’s basically a unicorn (this year also gave us Miracles from Heaven, The Young Messiah, 90 Minutes In Heaven, and God’s Not Dead 2, so it stands out pretty sharply).

But it’s unusual in another way. A title card at the beginning of the movie announces “this film is intended as a theatrical worship experience. The filmmakers welcome your participation.” And almost immediately, we are thrust into what is essentially a Hillsong live DVD, with lyrics filling up the bottom of the screen so we can all sing along.

I don’t know what the reaction was in most screenings, but I saw this film two weeks into its release, and watched it in an almost-but-not-quite empty theater – too many people to have a quiet worship experience, too few to join in as a congregation.

However, as quickly as we are thrust into a Hillsong concert, we are pulled back and join the band as they hole up in a house in Southern California to try to craft their next album, and the filmmakers pull back the curtain on how Christianity’s premier worship writers create their songs. The answer: extremely unconventionally.

Most of the movie features band leader Joel Houston with his head buried in his hands, or band members poking around at sounds or harmonies at untold hours of the early morning.

Meanwhile, the band is building towards a major worship concert in three months, where they’ll be premiering most of these songs. Normally, this would feel like a false deadline, meant to create a sense of tension, but the band ends up taking it down to the wire. They literally write the lyrics to one of their songs after soundcheck – the first time the words are ever sung is in front of 100,000 people. And let me just tell you, as a worship producer, I came relatively close to having an actual panic attack just watching the whole process unfold.

The film closes with a few songs of the concert packed together, giving the viewer a chance to have an actual “worship experience.” But while the moment is emotionally impactful, it falls well short of the authenticity the band is so focused on throughout the film. The separation between the individual as viewer and the individual as congregant is never bridged. It’s an interesting look behind-the-scenes, but it’s not fully capable of pulling you back in front of them afterwards.