Hillsong Church is an Australian megachurch with offshoots in London, Stockholm, New York and elsewhere, but its most influential export may be music. The church’s house band, Hillsong United, fronted by Joel Houston — son of the church’s founder, Brian Houston — has sold millions of albums and fills arenas around the globe. The band performed on NBC’s “Today” show earlier this month to promote the nationwide release of its new documentary, “Hillsong — Let Hope Rise.”
If you’re looking for sex, drugs and rock and roll, you won’t find any of it here. The rock doc, a genre once defined by rebellious youthquake icons like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, long ago gave way to the pop doc, defined by shrewd hitmakers like Katy Perry, Justin Bieber and One Direction, all of whom know that the key to good box office is a director willing to capture their good side. “Let Hope Rise,” directed by Michael John Warren (Jay Z’s “Fade to Black” documentary), fits the bill.
“Let Hope Rise” alternates between glossy concert performances, softball interviews and fly-on-the-wall footage in studios, vans and living rooms. The roughly one-dozen members can be hard to tell apart (many share the title Worship Leader), but a few distinct personalities emerge. Jonathan Douglas, shaggy-haired and excitable, serves as the band’s mascot; Taya Smith, a self-described “country girl,” boasts a resonant and powerful voice; Joel, the lyricist and also a singer, comes across as a self-serious perfectionist.
The band’s songs are traditional-minded hymns set to modern music in the vein of U2 or Arcade Fire: grandiose guitars, thunderous drumbeats, seas of synthesizers. The lyrics employ nature metaphors — oceans, light, mountains — and avoid specifics. There are few if any proper nouns. A line such as “Seated on high, the undefeated one / Mountains bow down as we lift Him up” (from the song “No Other Name”) could have easily been written in the 1800s. This may be one reason for the band’s success: Its music is timeless and all-purpose.
“Let Hope Rise” deserves credit for at least mentioning Hillsong Church’s child molestation scandal, which involved Brian Houston’s late father. Generally, though, this documentary is as superficial and monotonous as the music at its center.