This weekend, the documentary Let Hope Rise hits theaters around the country.
The film, from acclaimed filmmaker Michael John Warren (known for documentaries about artists including Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj and Drake), tells the story of both the Hillsong movement, which draws 10s of thousands every week, and the Hillsong United band.
The group sells out stadiums around the world, and has sold millions of albums, but—as the film shows—they have a larger goal than entertainment.
We recently sat down with the band and the film’s director to talk about what it was like making the film, how it came about and what the real message of Hillsong United is.
The band never set out to be movie stars so how did they wind up as the subjects of a major film?
Pastor Brian Houston: A guy who was involved in Hollywood took a producer to watch Hillsong United in Hollywood Bowl.
The producer disappeared after a few songs so his friend thought he didn’t like it and he left.
But, the way he describes it, is he actually made his way to the front and stood right in front of the band for three hours and got deeply impacted by it, specifically “Mighty to Save.” And he just wanted people to experience what he experienced. So that was the absolute root of the movie.
I think the thing that keeps the film from feeling self-serving or promotional is the unique perspective the director brings to it. But why would a guy who does Jay-Z and Nicki Minaj films take on a worship band?
Director Michael John Warren: A colleague and friend of mine, Andrew Freid, called me up and said there’s a movie kicking around Hollywood about an enormous band. And I was like ‘Oh cool, who are we talking about?’ and he’s like ‘They have tens of millions of albums sold.’ So I’m thinking we’re talking about Coldplay or something.
And then he said it was Hillsong United ,and I had never heard of them.
When he told me they were a Christian rock band, I said, “Why would I ever make a Christian rock film?” and he goes “Stay open.”
I was raised very, very Catholic—my father has two different theology degrees, and I rejected that as a teenager. But I hadn’t thought about God or anything for decades, and so I realized in that moment that I had a prejudice that I needed to let go of.
As someone who believes that they are open-minded or hopes to be open-minded, I let go of it and then I dived into the world, and I met them.
I realized that these were very sincere people with deep beliefs and a very righteous mission.
Then the other thing that happened is that I heard the music. I realized that we had the potential to make a fantastic film–a film about musicm but music that has a mission that’s more than just let’s sell a bunch of records and let’s be the best rapper.
They’re not just trying to do that; they’re actually on this mission to help people find what they need in life and to bring them into afterlife.
Hillsong didn’t initiate the film. They didn’t even have final cut. This outsider director could basically craft their story however they wanted. That had to be hard for the band to wrap their heads around.
Joel Houston: The first time I sat down with MJ, the director, we sat down in New York City and just had a good chat. And so he walks into church and he tells me, “I’ve been into that venue, and I’ve seen 200 bands in that venue and I’ve never experienced that atmosphere before and it was intriguing to me.” And I go, “Well what intrigued you about it?” And he goes, “I don’t know, it was positive. The only way I can describe it is it felt like love was in the air.’”
But I’m just thinking well I know what that is, and that’s the highest compliment you could say.
There was a confidence at that point.
It’s got to be a surreal thing for a band or an artist to see a film made about them, especially in this situation where the band did not have final cut, they did not have final say. This was not their film, this was just an outsider coming in and telling their story.
Joel Houston: One of the things that I thought was an intriguing opportunity is just, there’s so many stereotypes–everybody stereotypes everything and perspective is a personal thing. Whatever you’re seeing, you look at it and you see what you see, and yet the whole premise of what we’re trying to do is break through all of that, because that’s what Jesus did.
He didn’t bend to one or the other; He became a different worldview.
I think the opportunity there is the only way people can see that is if it’s a movie, and people are watching images that can’t be described in a song or a dance.
It comes back to everything that we do. Like, we know what we do on stage. We have to draw attention to ourselves for a moment to try and draw attention to who God is or who Jesus is.
The best way you can do that is just by opening up. Like removing the layers. For every single flash, bang, light thing that could be a distraction, there has to be a moment where you bring it back. You make it personal for somebody and the best way to make it personal is to be personal yourself.
This is why we sing, why we write these songs. This is why we tour, why we leave our families behind. This is why we do this, because God has changed our life.
I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for God’s grace through Jesus Christ.
I don’t deserve to be here, and I’m not going to give up the platform or try and make it about me as long as it’s in front of me because I know it’s not mine in the first place.
I know that can just sound like whatever, but it’s real for us. So I don’t think it was as difficult as it probably could have been, because the only story we got to tell is our own little testimony of who God is.
I think people will see God’s story and identify because everybody goes through pain and everybody experiences difficulty and hardship. Everybody experiences the highs and lows of the life, and it allows God to reveal Himself.