Funny, Flawed the Soundtrack for ‘Electric Jesus’ Helps Make The Movie

Take a screenwriter who is also a music fan and bring him together with a songwriter who’s a movie fan and you have the main ingredients necessary to create the soundtrack for Electric Jesus, a coming-of-age film about a Christian hair-metal band who want to play rock music meant to “make Jesus famous.” The movie, currently playing at the virtual Nashville Film Festival, comes from director Chris White, with music by composer Daniel Smith, aka Brother Danielson, a.k.a. Danielson.

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Raised by devout Southern Baptist parents, White felt like he’d never really seen a film that captured the voice of teenage Evangelicals. “At least not the ones I knew in my youth group in the 80s,” he tells American Songwriter. “Most churchy people in movies are portrayed as sinister, stupid, or superheroes. I didn’t know any kids like that. My friends were weird and funny and flawed…and sincerely loved Jesus, each other, and Christian rock music.”

Deciding to follow the adage, ‘write what you know,’ White resolved to make a film that played to this, in an endearing, John Hughes kind of way. The film, featuring Judd Nelson (The Breakfast Club) and Brian Baumgartner (The Office), set in 1986, centers on a fictional band called 316, who spend their summer trying to open for Stryper, the long-running real-life multi-platinum crossover Christian metal rockers. “We revered bands like Stryper who talked non-ironically about Jesus, but played cool music and looked like legit rock stars,” says White, of his friends when they were younger. “I liked Stryper then, but now, several decades later, I love Stryper! They’ve never stopped writing, recording, creating excellent music, keeping old fans and winning over new ones. Really—someone needs to make a documentary about Stryper!”

Assembling the onscreen band took a few years to get right. There are two bands in the film. The one viewers see onscreen, with actors, and the band that actually plays the music. Wyatt Lenhart, who plays lead singer Michael was the one crossover member. He sang all of the 316 songs and appears in the film. Smith brought in guitarist John Montgomery to play Jamie’s parts, acted by Will Oliver, for the studio band. Smith also asked John Mark Painter to play Cliff’s parts, acted by Gunner Willis,  and drummer Patrick Berkery to play Scotty’s parts, acted by Caleb Hoffmann. “All of those guys are revered studio players,” says White. “I cast the actors myself. Wyatt was cast first, Will last—but I’m so pleased with the results. They look like real kids, first of all. But they also look like a real band! Daniel Smith coached them all during rehearsals and on set during the shoot to sell the playing.”

Smith makes indie pop gospel music on his own and with his family members, through Danielson, and Danielson Familie respectively, which his friend Sufjan Stevens has been known to join in on. He composed Electric Jesus’ score and collaborated with White for the songs in the film, including the track ‘Commando For Christ’ and ‘Girl (I Love Jesus Too),’ both of which will be on a forthcoming soundtrack too. There’s no release date yet, but it’ll be through Joyful Noise Recordings, which released Danielson’s 2018 EP, Snap Outtavit.

Smith, who’s developed a unique kind of idiosyncratic, spiritual art-folk sound, found it fun to branch out into writing for a Christian hair metal group. “My Dad is a gospel folk song-writer and I remember as a kid trying to fall asleep while he was at the other end of the house writing and singing loudly. I’d wake up the next morning and he’d show me the song that he had just written that night before,” he says. “It was amazing to me that he could do that, and I wanted to do that. As I got older and became fascinated and influenced by all kinds of styles of music, my approach to writing still had that idea of the ‘song,’ but that song didn’t have to follow any rules if you didn’t want it to. It can go anywhere it wants and that’s where Danielson songs come from. When Chris approached me about the music for the film, I got excited about the challenge of writing for specific genres of music because I never do that.”

Smith went back to what he was listening to in 1986 — Def Leppard, Quiet Riot, Ratt, Twisted Sister — and just listened to that music for a few months.

“I live in South Carolina and Daniel’s in New Jersey, so there was a lot of texting. A lot of trading songs, demos, ideas,” ” says White. “We complimented each other. The collaboration was one of the most rewarding creative experiences of my life. When I first started sending Dan my song lyrics, I said ‘We can change anything.’ But he’d always say ‘No. I like these lyrics! Let’s music to work with the words.’ And that’s exactly what we did —for the Christian metal songs and the black metal songs, too. There’s even a song in the film that’s a mock-Christian worship chorus playing on a radio. I told Daniel that the song only had two words: “We just.” Those two words repeated over and over, the whole song. Could be the worst idea ever for a song, but somehow, he even made that song great!”

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