I Like the Christian Life
by Jen Burke Anderson
illustration by Aaron Farmer
MY CHILDHOOD church lashed us with warnings about the rampant Satanism of rock ’n’ roll. Pop music could provoke commentary from my elders that now seems like hallucination: Deacon Speyer confessing that his copy of Bing Crosby’s “Pistol-Packin’ Mama” was a stumbling block between him and Jesus; Pastor Petersen testifying that the Captain & Tenille’s sexy new early-’80s image was another sure sign that the book of Revelation was on the eve of its fulfillment.
The umbilical cord between religion and rock refuses to ever snap completely. While clergy despair over the African, “pagan” rhythms of Satan’s sheet music, it’s not hard to trace rock back to R&B’s roots in gospel and the Christian church. But rock ’n’ roll got away from its uptight parents and ran off in search of all those things mom and dad promised but never quite delivered: rapture, joy, freedom, truth. Sometimes it ran so far away it came back home again from another direction.
A spate of recent rock documentaries explores the surprisingly razor-thin line between Christianity, pagan recklessness and cutting-edge creativity.
Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus
The BBC follows alt-country songsmith Jim White as he takes a rusty-Cadillac spin through the Deep South of his childhood, exploring the sensual underbelly of fundamentalist Christianity and its role in the imagery of murder ballads, country and gospel music. Watch for spectacular on-location performances by the Handsome Family, 16 Horsepower, Trailer Bride and storyteller Harry Crews.
Danielson: A Family Movie
Plunging headlong into art-school weirdness and creative rapture, the charming and intelligent Danielson Famile uses its Christian beliefs as a springboard for creating some of the most otherworldly music available today. The film is not just about the group, but is a thought-provoking glimpse into the vagaries of the music industry and the meaning of family in modern society.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston
The Christian church may not provide much of a remedy for the manic-depressive Daniel Johnston, but its good-versus-evil framework has obviously made a deep impression on the singer-songwriter’s creative powers.
New York Doll
Arthur “Killer” Kane’s bass lines were the backbone of early ’70s proto-punk band the New York Dolls. But by the ’80s, Kane was falling down a spiral of drugs, alcohol, failed relationships and suicidal depression. This documentary takes an irony-free look at how the Mormon church gave Kane not only a support system as he cleaned up his life, but the inspiration for a Dolls reunion in London! Watch for themes of reconciliation, tolerance and forgiveness—as well as commentary by an out-of-his-shell Morrissey.
Not rock docs, but in the same spirit:
The Education of Shelby Knox
Teenage Shelby Knox may come from a fundamentalist home, but she’s on a mission to save her classmates from pregnancy and STDs by campaigning for forthright sex education.
The Notorious Bettie Page
Smart cookie Bettie Page apparently didn’t see much of a conflict between posing for bondage porn and believing in Jesus.
Jen Burke Anderson is a writer in San Francisco’s Richmond District. She sees all her indie rock docs at the Balboa Theatre (balboamovies.com).