Saturday, May 18, 2024

Unsung Hero


Your enjoyment of this film will depend to some degree on whether you were listening to Christian pop music three decades ago. I was a youth pastor at the time, so, sure, I took students to see Michael W. Smith in concert introducing D.C.Talk as his opening act. Unsung Hero features actors playing performers central to the world of Christian music in the 1990s. Rachel Hendrix plays a kind and gracious Amy Grant. Jonathan Jackson plays Eddie Degarmo (of Degarmo and Key), a benefactor of the film’s family. Joe Chambrello plays Carman who isn’t very helpful. There’s serious nostalgia cred as the film opens, with Christian hair band Stryper playing at the Sydney Opera House.

That’s when we meet the central figure in the film: Christian music promoter David Smallbone (played by David’s son, Joel Smallbone). His promotion of Styper’s Australia tour led him to believe he was set on a path to fame and fortune, so he invested everything the family had in his next venture, Amy Grant’s Australian Lead Me On tour. His wife is unsure about this venture; he loses their savings and their house. He pins his career hopes on a deal with Christian mega-star Carmen in America. At his wife’s insistence, they pack up their six (with one on the way) children and move to Nashville, Tennessee.

With his family in an unfurnished rental house, no car, and little cash, David’s deal with Carmen falls through. He falls into a deep depression.

David’s father in the film is played by Terry O’Quinn, the one “name” actor in the film. You may know him from the TV show, Lost. More relevant to this film, O’Quinn played the title character in the cult horror film, The Stepfather. In that film, a stepfather becomes a raging psychopath when his new family turns out to be less than perfect. That film was rated R, filled with much hacking and bloodletting.

In this PG-rated film, the father acts out in different ways. Besides the initial reckless squandering of the family funds, he makes rash plans that endanger the livelihood of the whole family. He goes into a depression, not moving from his bed for long stretches of time. And he takes out his anger and pain verbally on his wife and children, particularly his oldest daughter who has hopes of a musical career of her own.

When the people of their new church in Nashville bring food and gifts for Christmas, David rages at their generosity, too proud to receive what his family needs. Pride keeps him from pursuing many of the good vocational options open to him. He shuts down many sources of help, even from his own father.

I realize the filmmakers didn’t intend to make David Smallbone the villain of this piece. The title track of the film (sung by Joel Smallbone) says, “Strong like your father, even when you’re scared.” Clearly, they wanted the audiences to see the man as a hero who made some mistakes. But for me, he never came across as heroic.

On the other hand, Daisy Betts as Helen Smallbone, the wife and mother of the family, is truly heroic. G. K. Chesterton had a saying, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.” Helen is the embodiment of that philosophy. She encourages her children to dream and take chances. She is ever supportive of her husband. She makes friends and takes on all challenges. 

It seems that it was her inspiration that led to the success of her children, who went on to success in the world of Christian music, first with their oldest daughter, Rebecca St. James, and Luke & Joel Smallbone formed the band King and Country. Their success was the reason the film was made. And maybe playing up David Smallbone’s faults provided the dramatic tension that was needed for a feature film. 

The film is worth watching because it doesn’t follow the idyllic worldview often found in other Christian films.

The small, apparently nondenominational church in this film is full of gracious people and deserves a four steeple rating.