A few years ago Michael John Warren got what was, for him, an indecent proposal. Warren is a filmmaker who specializes in music docs. His CV is pretty hip: The 2004 Jay Z concert movie “Fade to Black, a TV concert movie for Drake, two TV concert movies for Nikki Minaj. He was the perfect person to pitch a movie about a band that sell out 180,000-person arenas and have moved tens of millions of albums.
Thing is, that band is Hillsong United. Warren had never even heard of them. And he wasn’t thrilled when he learned they’re the world’s biggest Christian rock band.
“They waited to tell me that — wisely,” Warren says. “When they said they were a Christian rock band, I literally said, ‘Why would I do that?’”
But Warren changed his mind, and the result is “Hillsong: Let Hope Rise,” a blend of concert movie and off-stage hang time that brings an obscure band that sometimes charts alongside Taylor Swift and Beyonce to the big screen. It took some soul-searching, if you will.
“I realized you could have told me the film was about ISIS or Satan worshippers, and I’d be like, ‘Yeah, that sounds cool, let’s do it.’ But you say ‘Jesus,’ and it’s a dirty word for me,” he says. Warren was raised Catholic but turned on it in his teenage years. Religion is not something he’s thought about much since. “I realized I was carrying my prejudices over from my childhood. If I was actually an open-minded person — which I like to believe I am — I needed to put that stuff away and see what this was.”
Hillsong United aren’t your run-of-the-mill Christian rockers. They were born out of the Hillsong Church — a megachurch based out of Sydney, Australia, which now has arms all over the world. Formed in 1998, United have a revolving door crew, currently made of 10 members, including Joel Houston, one of their songwriters, who also serves as a pastor.
Warren initially tried to break down their logic. He quickly realized that wasn’t important. “It’s something they feel, something believe in very, very deeply. There’s nothing I can say that’s going to shake that,” he says. “For me it was like exploring a new culture. And it was a really interesting culture. They take their music as seriously as any musician I’ve worked with. In a way they probably take it more seriously. The way Joel approaches his music, he’s not just trying to write a catchy hook. There’s an additional responsibility to not screw up the Bible. There’s an extra weight to what he’s doing that, really, no pop star has.”
Warren came around to them on a personal level, too. (“Let the record state that these are normal people,” he jokes.) He even grew to respect their m.o. “Their mission is to save souls through music. That’s the coolest musical mission you can ever have. Whether I believe it or not is irrelevant,” he adds.
The feeling was mutual. The members of United could have easily been nonplussed that a heathen was filming them. That wasn’t true. “They’re not too freaked out by people who don’t believe. If anything I think it was fun for them,” he says. He did have to be on his best behavior, sort of. He’d still drive up to their home to do some shooting blasting rap music. “I started to swear a bit less around then. But I still swear a lot.”
But there’s also this problem, if you will: They’re really nice — maybe too nice for a rock doc. “As a storyteller that’s really stressful. Who’s going to yell at someone? Who’s going to throw a chair across the room? Who’s going to cheat on their wife?” But the lack of hysterics was something he got over, too. “I figured out that what they’re doing is so much deeper. I didn’t need the immediate tension in each scene — because it wasn’t there. They have the healthiest band dynamic you’re going to see. Joel’s a procrastinator and they get frustrated with him. That all happens. But it’s just not the same.”
The movie he’s made may be openly religious, complete Hillsong United’s scripture-quoting lyrics printed on the screen during rapturously received shows. That doesn’t mean Warren changed his approach. He says he went into it with the same methodology he applies to Jay Z or Nikki Minaj. That said, he hasn’t changed his religious beliefs.
“All my friends ask me, ‘Are you saved?’ — like I lapsed into drug addiction or something,” he says, laughing. “I tell them no. But I met some people who are some of the best people I’ve known in my life. They’re legitimately happy. There’s stuff to learn from that. I don’t think I’m going to be saved, but I look at how they live their lives and how they treat people. You can take what’s useful from that and leave the rest behind.”