During the sessions that would produce "Great Balls of Fire," Jerry Lee Lewis famously fought with Sam Phillips about the sinfulness of rock 'n' roll. Phillips thought it could actually save souls; Lewis insisted it was worldly and corrupt. "I got the devil in me!" the Killer shouted. Many a Christian rocker since has played out that argument internally, trying to reconcile his relationship to Jesus and his relationship to the music.
That struggle is at the heart of Vickie Hunter and Heather Whinna's new feature about Christian rock, Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? The 92-minute movie, finished this summer, was filmed mostly at the Cornerstone Festival in Bushnell, Illinois, an annual Christian-music event that in 2004 booked more than 100 bands and attracted nearly 30,000 fans. Though the film's not much to look at--most of it was shot with a handheld DV camera in poorly lit trailers and tents--it compensates by developing a thoughtful picture of a community that's often been cynically mocked in the mainstream media.
By turns frustrating, funny, and moving, Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? debuted at the Chicago Underground Film Festival in August, and this week it gets its first--and possibly only--theatrical run, showing at the Gene Siskel Film Center. (Hunter and Whinna will be on hand for a discussion at the Friday screening.)
Neither Hunter, who's agnostic, nor Whinna, an atheist, grew up in a religious household, which may account for the film's unjaundiced perspective: the filmmakers don't have an ax to grind with Jesus. And neither of them had ever made a movie before. These days the longtime friends both work for Second City, Whinna as a room manager and Hunter as an accountant. Previously Hunter, a native of Missoula, Montana, was tour manager for Silkworm (she's married to the band's bassist, Tim Midgett), and Whinna, who grew up in Chicago, was a clerk at Reckless and an independent concert promoter.
The idea for Devil came from Whinna, who got curious about Christian bands through her boyfriend Steve Albini, who's recorded several, including the Blamed and the Danielson Famile. "At first, I was interested because it kinda freaked me out," she says. "When you'd find out a band was Christian, you'd automatically listen to them in a whole different way. I found it sorta funny and ridiculous that all [their] songs could be about one topic. That seemed insane to me. But then I found out separately about JPUSA."
The Chicago-based Christian commune JPUSA, or Jesus People USA, was founded in 1971, as the Jesus Movement was making its bid to harness the energy of the counterculture for godly ends. Whinna first encountered the group in 1996, when Albini recorded a band of JPUSA members called Crashdog, and beginning in 1997 she hired them to work security at several concerts she promoted. She also learned that JPUSA had launched the Cornerstone Festival in 1984.
Whinna had already made a couple attempts to get documentary projects off the ground in the late 90s, and now that she'd found a new one, she seized on Cornerstone as a perfect opportunity to start shooting. With a small group of friends serving as crew, she and Hunter headed downstate in July 2001. "It was amazing," says Hunter. "We're talking about a festival of 20 to 30 thousand people that's been happening for two decades in southern Illinois, and most people have never heard of it. There was no mainstream press there at all. We were it."
Whinna says the pair's inexperience as documentarians worked in their favor, helping to put their subjects at ease: the people they filmed at Cornerstone are unguarded and enthusiastic. Performance artist Elly Woman tells an outlandish tale of her deliverance from the music of Led Zeppelin, and Cool Hand Luke drummer Mark Nicks explains that God provided not only the band's songs but its van as well. Former Smoking Popes front man Josh Caterer, who found Jesus in 1998, testifies about retooling his music to serve the Lord. Among the other voices is David Bazan of Pedro the Lion, who's more conflicted--he candidly recounts his attempts to flee the Christian-rock ghetto for the secular realm of indie rock.
Hunter and Whinna also interview teenage fans, who talk about purging their record collections of non-Christian music and describe listening to pop radio as though it were an illicit vice. They're a rapturously devoted audience, but they also seem to take pleasure in self-denial. "There's no rebellion in these kids, which is the strangest thing," says Whinna. "A lot of them grew up in Christian households, often in evangelical homes. People who were 12 years old when they say they accepted Christ into their lives."
Despite the common view of evangelical Christianity as a monolithic culture, like the bloc of red states on the electoral map, it's actually divided on issues like abortion and homosexuality, and Christian rockers often fall on the progressive side on those questions. "There is this outsider Christian community that isn't very happy about the way homosexuals are treated and is willing to say that," says Hunter. Among those preaching tolerance in the film are hipster evangelist Jim Bakker--son of Jim and Tammy Faye--and Andrew Mandell of Celtic punks Ballydowse.
The usual complaint about Christian rock isn't small-mindedness, though, but the poor quality of the music. Christian-rock bands have tended to be merely Jesus-approved knockoffs of mainstream acts. "It's like a parallel universe," says Hunter. But the landscape of the genre changed dramatically during the making of the film. "P.O.D. blew up. Then Evanescence got huge, and so did a bunch of other Christian bands. Everything changed, and the record labels got in on it immediately."
Hunter and Whinna returned from the 2001 festival with about 100 hours of video and returned in 2003 to shoot more. In the intervening years they did supplemental interviews with several non-Christians--including queer punks Pansy Division and zine writer John Tolley--to flesh out the outsider's perspective. Punk Planet editor Daniel Sinker weighs in on copycat Christian acts, and Albini talks about secular folks' mistrust of proselytizing evangelicals.
Silkworm drummer Michael Dahlquist patched together a computer editing system and taught himself to use it, helping Hunter and Whinna trim 150 hours of footage down to an hour and a half. All told the project's budget was only a bit more than $12,000, but all of it was the filmmakers' own money.
Response to the Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? has been mixed. Hunter and Whinna say audiences have praised it effusively, but they suspect that festival programmers and distributors are afraid it presents too positive a view of Christian rock. "We've sent it to a million festivals and been denied to nearly every one," says Hunter. "They don't know if we're Christian," says Whinna. "They don't know if the film is intended as a tool. But to us, it's obvious that it's not. It's just an honest film."
Hunter and Whinna have received the kind of validation they were looking for already, during their first trip to Cornerstone. "This punk-looking girl came up to us and asked, 'Are you the guys making the movie?'" says Whinna. "And with tears in her eyes, she said, 'I want to thank you for taking us seriously.' That's really all we wanted to do."
What: Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?
When: Fri-Wed 11/19-11/24
Where: Gene Siskel Film Center,
164 N. State
Info: 312-575-8000 or 312-846-2800
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.