‘The Jesus Music’: Erwin brothers document Christian music from hippies through contemporary praise

In their new documentary “The Jesus Music,” Birmingham-born brothers Jon and Andy Erwin construct an eye-opening historical overview of how the contemporary Christian music industry started and how it’s going.

Musicians such as Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant, Toby Mac and Kirk Franklin give voice to how it happened. The documentary opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, Oct. 1. The brothers also have a feature film, “American Underdog,” with Zachary Levi starring as NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, coming out Dec. 25.

After working cameras at sports events for ESPN for years, the Erwin brothers began making Christian music videos in 2007 and later made a transition to feature films with Christian themes, such as “Woodlawn,” including biopics about Christian musicians.

“Our breakout film was ‘I Can Only Imagine’ and we followed that up with ‘I Still Believe,’” Jon Erwin said. “This is a world that’s very important to a lot of people, including myself. I love this music. I remember a lot of these concerts and moments.”

During the pandemic, the brothers who are now based in Nashville were able to track down nearly 100 important figures in the Christian music industry, since concerts were shut down and no one was touring.

“This documentary is our love letter to Christian music because it’s what shaped our careers,” said Andy Erwin. “As kids from Birmingham that tried hard to get people to take a chance on us, the first one to do that was Michael W. Smith. He came along and let us do a video for one of his songs, ‘How to say Goodbye.’ We filmed it all in Birmingham.”

Soon, Amy Grant was calling the brothers in Birmingham.

“Amy Grant gave us a shot at doing one of her videos,” Andy said. “That led to us being music video directors for years. Then when we moved over to feature film, we finally got a chance to do ‘I Can Only Imagine,’ that was our big breakout hit that launched us onto another stage. We owe a tremendous debt to these artists. Their stories and their music is what gave us a career.”

The documentary focuses on how promiscuity and drug overdoses of the 1960′s turned to spiritual disillusionment.

Bushy-bearded, long-haired Evangelist Lonnie Frisbee began attracting other hippies to Pastor Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California, which in 1969 became the epicenter of the Jesus Music movement.

“When it started, it was just called the Jesus Music,” Jon Erwin said. “CCM, Contemporary Christian Music, that’s a modern, more commercial way to categorize it.”

It soon became its own industry. In 1971, Maranatha Music was founded as a non-profit ministry of Calvary Chapel and became the first Christian music label. The folk-rock music of the period became an expression of Christian faith sung and played by newly converted hippies.

In 1969, Capitol Records released “Upon This Rock,” an album by Larry Norman that’s considered the first Christian rock album. Norman was dropped by Capitol but formed his own record label and began headlining Christian rock festivals including “Explo ‘72,” where Evangelist Billy Graham embraced the new music and called it a Christian Woodstock. “Why should the devil have all the good music?” Norman famously said, summing up the movement.

“For these artists, it was born out of a really organic moment in history of a lot of burned out hippies discovering this faith and needing to sing about it in the 1970s, then forging a trail that didn’t exist,” Andy Erwin said.

“Christian music today was born out of that movement,” Jon Erwin said. “It was a new type of music. It was rebellious at the time. You’ve got to remember, there was a time when drums were not allowed on the stage of a church; guitars were not allowed. Hippies were not allowed in the door. It was this outpouring of love in the late sixties, early seventies that birthed a new form of music. There were no Christian radio stations. There were no Christian bookstores. There was no infrastructure to sell music. They not only had to create this new sound, they had to create a way to get it to people. They had to innovate and form a business.”

No one envisioned how big it would become.

“The incredible story is that this early group of artists didn’t have a place for their songs to be heard and so they forged an industry together from nothing,” Jon Erwin said. “It’s stories of complex and flawed and beautiful people that accomplished the impossible together.”

Lead singer Michael Sweet of the heavy metal Christian band Stryper recalls converting to Christianity after watching Jimmy Swaggart on TV, then being heartbroken later watching Swaggart condemn his expression of Christian faith as the work of the devil.

Much of the early Christian music wasn’t welcome in traditional churches, but when Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant put a softer face on it as the king and queen of Christian pop music in the 1980s, the industry exploded in popularity.

While artists such as Andrae Crouch and Kirk Franklin helped integrate it, much of it remained separately categorized into white and Black Christian music.

The documentary features a plea from Franklin to break down those barriers.

Toby McKeehan, known by the stage name Toby Mac, joined with Michael Tait and Kevin Max to form DC Talk in 1987, bringing Christian hip hop into the mainstream. Toby Mac penned the 1995 hit song “Jesus Freak” that crossed over onto alternative rock radio and reclaimed the derogatory term that the early pioneers of Christian music were called.

“The Jesus Music” explores the backlash that Grant endured after she divorced her first husband and married country star Vince Gill. The documentary also explores the death of McKeehan’s 21-year-old son. Tait and Franklin reflect on racism in society. Christian singer Russ Taff discusses the effect of alcoholism on his family.

“God uses people that are broken to write songs that reach out to the broken,” McKeehan says at one point in the documentary.

Grant’s interview was done two weeks before her scheduled open-heart surgery. “There’s just a level of almost brutal honesty to her interview,” Jon Erwin said. “That’s what triggered every other artist to do the same.”

At one point, Bill Gaither recalls Jerry Falwell grilling him about the private lives of Christian singers. Gaither responds that if he had to find Christian entertainers without flaws, the stage would be empty.

Through nearly 100 interviews, the Erwin brothers weaved together themes of boldness and vulnerability.

“Andy interviewed them,” Jon Erwin said. “They trusted Andy with the details of their stories. What you get is this symphony of artists telling a story that has not been told before.”

Telling it in just under an hour and 50 minutes left a lot of good material on the cutting-room floor.

“That was the challenge, to tell the story in two hours,” Jon Erwin said. “You could do a 10-part miniseries to this and not even scratch the surface of how great this story is.”

If there’s enough interest, there’s certainly enough material to do that at a later date, the brothers said. In the meantime, they hope people return to movie theaters to see this homage to Christian music.

“If you’re a fan of Christian music, you’re going to love this movie,” Jon Erwin said. “It’s the soundtrack to your faith. But even if you’re not a fan of the music, it’s a love letter to entrepreneurs and dreamers and to people who want their voices heard, who have something written in their heart and burning in their soul that they want to communicate to the world.”

Among the movies theaters showing “The Jesus Music” starting Friday will be Regal Trussville, AmStar Stadium 14 in Alabaster, AmStar Stadium 12 in Oxford, Premiere Cinema 14 Tannehill in Bessemer and Premiere Cinema 16 in Gadsden.

'The Jesus Music'

In the documentary ‘The Jesus Music,’ Birmingham-born brothers Jon and Andy Erwin give an overview of the birth of Contemporary Christian Music.