Sometime in the 1980's, I put aside my self-destructive ways and became something resembling a Christian punk rocker. I had purple hair and seven piercings and, yes, I looked like the wannabe that I wanted to be. My arts journalism at the time leaned more toward music than film and, you betcha, I found myself amongst the bands in the growing Christian rock, punk, and hair metal movement that makes me look back now and think to myself "What was I possibly thinking?"
It's a true story that Stryper's "Honestly" was the first dance song at my wedding.
Is it any wonder my marriage didn't last?
Writer/director Chris White's Electric Jesus has a far more affectionate approach to the 80's world of Christian hair metal and the end result is that Electric Jesus is one of 2021's most pleasant surprises. Electric Jesus is somewhat faith-inspired, a phrase I like to use when films aren't really remotely faith-based but they maintain a moral center of sorts and live realistically within the worlds of faith, religion, and our fumbling attempts toward Christian living.
I'm a pastor now, or I suppose I should say I'm a minister now since I'm not currently serving a church, and I found Electric Jesus a surprisingly delightful experience from beginning to end. The film is visiting Indy for a one-night only appearance on Sunday, Sept. 5th, at Indy's new locally-owned arthouse joint Kan-Kan Cinema and Brasserie in the Windsor Park neighborhood. The cast and crew will be present and those who attend are most definitely in for a good time.
Electric Jesus picked up the Jury Prize for Narrative Feature at the Fayetteville Film Festival and was a nominee for the Grand Jury Prize at Nashville Film Fest. It's the kind of film that festival audiences love. Indy's locals ought to love the film, as well, since Ball State University grad Andrew Eakle is a featured player and proves he's ready for an even bigger spotlight.
Just in case I haven't been abundantly clear, Electric Jesus sets itself down in the world of 80's Christian hair metal. Yes, that was a thing. If you were there, the odds are pretty strong you remember it all with a goofy nostalgia. Goofy nostalgia says just about all there is to say about Brian Baumgartner's turn as Skip Wick, whose name alone makes me smile as it sounds like more than one of the Christian band managers I met back in the 80's. Baumgartner, most known for The Office, is an absolute gem here and marvelously captures White's tapestry of dramatic and humorous notes that are often woven together simultaneously. If you remember Stryper, and how could you forget, they were a band that more than likely wouldn't have been a band if they hadn't been a Christian band. The same is largely true for Baumgartner's Skip, practically a caricature of a band manager who absolutely has no business managing anything.
Yet, here he is.
Another familiar face is former Brat Packer Judd Nelson, who sets aside The Breakfast Club for The 700 Club.
Okay, it's not quite that extreme.
Nelson is Pastor Wember and, yes, I can't help but think of Vineyard Christian Fellowship founder John Wimber. Yes, there are some similarities here and they sure as heck made me laugh. It's the pastor's daughter, Sarah (Shannon Hutchinson), who really embraces the band so much that she takes it upon herself to join them on the road.
While there are a myriad of ways that Electric Jesus could have gone, to his credit White mostly keeps the faith and allows Electric Jesus to be the feel-good, more comedy than drama that it wants to be. There are no faux histrionics here and the emotions feel as honest as the efforts to remain faithful while keeping a unique rhythm.
Andrew Eakle is, as noted, an absolute joy as Erik, a mission-inspired musician who seems to live by the old phrase "To us be the applause, to God be the glory." Eakle is a charismatic performer with a unique blending of swagger and humility that works sublimely here. The other band members include lead singer Michael (Wyatt Lenhart), lead guitarist Jamie (Will Oliver), bassist Cliff (Gunner Willis), and Scotty (Caleb Nix Hoffmann). This is a terrific ensemble with everyone given ample character development and true moments to shine. I was already familiar with Hoffmann from his last film Small Group and it's fantastic to see him get another great vehicle for his talent.
Hutchinson, of course, fits in quite nicely here and has the kind of voice that any 80's Christian hair metal band would have died for.
Daniel Smith's original music is strong throughout and veteran D.P. Erik Curtis's lensing is a fantabulous mixture of 80's vibrancy and Christian metal earnestness.
Electric Jesus doesn't tread a whole lot of new territory, though it also doesn't exactly go everywhere you expect it to go. Suffice it to say that there's a whole lot of fun to be had here for people of faith and people who can't spell faith. Seriously, there's no preachiness to be found here. Instead, Chris White simply tells an engaging story and tells it incredibly well with a top-notch ensemble cast and crew bringing it all to life with heart, humor, and honesty.
For more information on Kan-Kan Cinema and Brasserie, visit their website. If you get a chance, definitely check out Electric Jesus, a 1091 Pictures release.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic