Who would have expected Hollywood to make a film about a rag-tag church band in Australia; certainly not the band themselves, says Hillsong UNITED worship leader Jad Gillies.
‘No-one was more surprised than us,’ says Jad, who has played guitar and sung in the band for 14 years. ‘We were like, “Who would see a movie about us? That’s ridiculous!” We had no idea how it was going to come out, and we were pleasantly surprised and love the shape the film has taken.’
They’ve sold more than 20 million albums, played to crowds of 100,000, and their songs are sung by 50 million people every single Sunday. Technically, Hillsong UNITED should be rock stars, but, as their new film Let Hope Rise documents, this Aussie crew of 11 is anything but.
‘They’re the biggest band in the world nobody’s heard of,’ says producer Michael Weaver. Admitting that he went into the project a little ‘jaded’, Weaver witnessed the group playing a sold-out gig at Los Angeles’ Hollywood Bowl and was so moved that the idea for Let Hope Rise was born.
After recruiting director Michael John Warren (who directed Nicki Minaj’s My Time Now and Jay-Z’s Fade to Black), they approached the church and began the mammoth task. Deciding that it would be a modern documentary-style music film, instead of showcasing the glitz and glamour of a Hollywood’s A list, it would be about a band that has gone from filling pews to filling stadiums.
The Hillsong UNITED’s humble beginnings started when Hillsong church was formed, created by Sydney-based senior pastors Brian and Bobby Houston in 1983, and the only music available was an out-of-tune organ. Today, the church has spawned 17 global locations, penned iconic songs like ‘Shout to the Lord,’ ‘Hosanna’ and ‘Oceans’ and, as The New York Times has said, ‘transformed the Christian songbook’.
They have reached number one on the iTunes charts, dominated Billboard’s Christian music chart, and have sold out venues like the Denver’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre, London’s O2 Arena and New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. They also count celebrities like Justin Bieber as attendees.
But for all their success, the band’s mission remains the same: to tell the world about Jesus. And that’s why they gave Hollywood an all-access-pass as they toured around the globe for a year and wrote a new album.
‘My fear about the movie was that people would think it was about us or that we were trying to promote ourselves,’ explains worship leader Joel Houston, ‘that’s not what we’re trying to do.’
As Jad explains, ‘Through the film, I hope that people would see the church as something that’s safe and inclusive—more than the stereotypical view of the church that can have a negative connotation,’ he says ‘I pray that they see the church as something alive and vibrant, and perhaps it would be for them.’
Dubbed a ‘theatrical worship experience,’ the film switches between live music sequences, in-depth interviews, and footage of time on the road and their charity work.
‘When we were testing the film, people would stand up and sing along with the songs and worship, I didn’t expect that, I don’t think anyone did,’ explains Jad. ‘I want people to leave the film feeling encouraged, whether they believe in God or not, that you can do something significant with your life no matter how ordinary you feel.’
While they look and sound like rock stars on stage, the ‘ordinary’ nature of the band comes from their otherwise predictable lifestyle. The majority live in Sydney and spend time with their spouses and children, balancing tour life with their work as volunteers or staff at Hillsong church.
‘One night you can be selling out the Staples Centre in Los Angeles and the next night you can forget to put your bins out, so it kind of seems like to other people that we live this crazy life, but to be honest, it’s blissfully ordinary and that’s how we like it,’ Jad says.
‘Everybody who serves in a church has to balance work and volunteering and just kind of the load of life and [in the film] we wanted to basically show that it’s the same for us, too.’
The collision between the world of Hollywood and Christianity could have been a heaping wreck, especially considering the director and majority of producers weren’t Christians themselves. But instead, the collaboration left both parties better for the experience.
‘I go and film these guys and when I leave I’m kind of bummed I’m not with them any more,’ says director John Michael Warren. ‘That doesn’t happen often when I’m making a film about someone else.’
Jad agrees and says the band still keeps in contact with the production team.
‘We became like a family, so much so that when we wrapped and finished filming, we missed each other!’
Perhaps what’s most notable about Hillsong UNITED isn’t their movie, their legion of fans, or even their millions of albums—it’s their authenticity to the message that irrespective of their success, as the tag-line of the film says, it’s ‘all about him’.
As Warren says, ‘I don’t believe the same things they believe, but I’m learning from them...their mission—without exaggeration—is to make music to save souls. They are trying to get people to discover Jesus. That’s probably the most righteous reason to make music.’