Taking Off the Mask

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Time to rock out, all…

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IMDb

It’s always interesting when Christian artists (or any musicians) dabble in moviemaking, and 2008’s The Imposter sports not one artist, but three: dc Talk alum Kevin Max, Kerry Livgren of Kansas, and Jeff Deyo, formerly of Sonicflood. Not to be confused with the Gary Sinise film, The Imposter follows Johnny C (Kevin Max), a Christian musician who falls from grace. Really, really hard.

Full disclosure: I have a microscopic personal history with Kevin Max. Remember when I said I was a member of the Vibe Tribe? And that one of the perks was Meet & Greets at dc Talk concerts?

Well, I met Kevin first. We were both awkward. I still floated out of the room, though.

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dctalk.com

(So, Kevin, if you ever read this, hi. It’s good to see you. 🙂 )

Anyway, Kevin Max’s brand is that of the odd guy out, and it’s true after a fashion. His music is on the arcane side, which, because it’s so innovative, unfortunately doesn’t translate into much radio play (Hear a sample here). He’s also published a couple of volumes of blank verse poetry that stunned a lot of people in a good way, and not just English geeks like me.

Well, not everyone is impressed. Amazingly enough, Instagram still hasn’t given Max a blue checkmark, but here’s hoping.

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kevinmax.com

Although he seems fringe-y, Max is very much within the inner circle because of dc Talk’s place in music history, and one would hope he brings that perspective to The Imposter. The film sets out to shatter every Christian movie cliche and every common complaint about Christian music, while giving a reality check on what can happen to artists behind the scenes. Does it succeed? Errrr, well, let’s summarize the plot first.

At the get-go, Johnny’s narration informs us that it’s expected the movie cut to the hero lurching down the aisle, getting saved, and standing up instantly changed. Again, though, this is not that movie. It’s about the process, not a quick fix.

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Johnny’s band, Grand Design is on top, although not without controversy, because the public wants to know why they only mention Jesus twice on their latest album. It’s very important to know who the band is singing to, after all. It’s no problem, Johnny and bandmate James (Jeff Deyo) say. They might be unconventional to some people and break a few rules, but they ultimately answer to Jesus.

What the public doesn’t know is that Johnny is addicted to painkillers. He also has a wandering eye, checking out women during concerts and then meeting them afterwards.  Women are drawn to him because rockstar and cute guy. His wife, Tara (Arianne Martin) is fed up and takes their daughter, Elizabeth (Erin Michele Harris) back to her Texas hometown.

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The final straw for the band is when a strung-out Johnny shows up forty-five minutes late for a recording session. They’re sympathetic, everybody prays for Johnny, but he’s out, and according to the band’s contract, all money Johnny makes goes to Tara.

Even without his addiction and marital troubles, Johnny feels inadequate. His dad is a fiery preacher who bellows from the pulpit about people needing to prove their worth as Christians. How do they do that? By saving as many people as possible.  As in, every part of the process from the preaching to the altar call. Every other sentence gets “Amens” from his many congregants. Johnny’s got to be more like Dad, or Johnny’s not living up to expectations. Anyway, Dad doesn’t appreciate that Johnny’s been taking drugs and messing around.

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Johnny tries to maintain the illusion of having it all together, but piece by piece he’s stripped down to nothing but a few bucks and the clothes on his back. A supposed deal with a new producer comes to nothing, and his supplier beats him up when he can’t pay for his next hit. When his electricity gets shut off, Johnny is reduced to trudging down the road with a backpack. He hitches a ride to Texas, hoping to win Tara back.

Our hero may be down, but he’s not without fellow travelers. The night he gets beaten up, Johnny is befriended by a homeless man named Popeye (Tom Wright) who takes him to the abandoned ambulance he’s been living in with Oprah, his trusty bug zapper. Yes, a bug zapper. With duct tape on the top and looking like it was fished out of a dumpster. Popeye’s pet fear is radiation, and Oprah is his savior. The thing about Popeye, though, is that he may seem a wee bit crazy, but he will not hesitate to tell Johnny the truth about himself. He won’t put up with Johnny being selfish, and calls Johnny a fake before stomping off with Oprah. Yet he somehow always returns exactly when Johnny is at a low point.

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Another character who has a big presence in Johnny’s life is Proff (Kerry Livgren), the janitor at Tara’s home church. This guy always happens to be around when Tara or Johnny need to talk, and he’s kind of a gentle influence on everyone. He’s not too lenient with Johnny, but he’s not a sarge type, either. And no, we don’t get to see Kerry Livgren perform as Proff, but he and Max collaborate on “Carry On, Wayward Son” during the ending credits.

Johnny has his moment of transformation, but again, as the movie promises, he’s not suddenly problem-free. Popeye, in a rare moment of lucidity, tells him he’s a fake. Proff hands him a broom and some Windex. but not in that order. Tara may or may not want to talk to him ever again. However, his life is open, he’s at least got a clue, and as Bob Dylan famously sang, the times, they are a-changin’.

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The Imposter‘s sum total leaves me feeling a little mixed. I get where they were going with it, and I like that it’s not as squeaky clean as the usual Christian fare. The characters seem real, especially the scenes where Johnny is high. Kevin Max’s acting, while often involving him heaving a sigh and throwing his head back, was natural and somewhat competent. I don’t know what he did to prepare for the role, but it kinda works for a first-time actor. He’s not great, but sort of gets by, even though he’s not trained.

There are also plenty of sound messages to be learned. For instance, Proff asks Tara why she puts up with Johnny’s bad behavior. Naturally, Tara wants to keep her family together, but Proff points out that if she’s allowing Johnny to do drugs and mess around, will she allow Elizabeth to make poor choices when she’s old enough to fall on her face? Tara can’t answer.

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I think what I like most about the film is its acknowledgement of the dichotomy between what is seen and not seen by the public in Christian music. Not just in the professional industry, but in plain old average everyday music ministry in Anytown, Anywhere. On Sunday mornings or in concerts, when everyone is singing and smiling, artists may seem like they have all the answers, or that they’re just vulnerable enough to be endearing, when in actuality the penitence is a front. Sometimes egotism runs so rampant that ministry is barely a footnote, if that.

It doesn’t happen all the time. There are some very genuine artists out there. Quite a few, actually (Looking at you, TobyMac and For King and Country). Big heads are not uncommon either, though, and that’s one of the reasons I hate, loathe, despise and abominate church politics. It doesn’t mean Christianity is false, but how Christians treat each other is a major barometer of each individual’s overall spiritual health.

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Speaking of which, it might seem funny for the talk show host in the movie to point out Grand Design doesn’t mention God enough, but it’s actually a very common complaint. I lost track of how many times I heard it when I was in music ministry, and it’s telling that Max and Deyo both chuckle when they hear it in the interview scene.

Here’s the thing, though–mentioning God a certain number of times doesn’t necessarily make one song more Christian than another. When I was with the Continentals, we had a saying: “There are songs that you sing to God, and songs you sing about God.” In other words, the validity of a song comes down to intent and the fruit or lack of seen in the artist’s life. It’s a fine line to walk, but I don’t believe mentioning God should be seen as a quota. By that criteria, “Amazing Grace” would not be a Christian song.

What’s more, even when an artist sings so-called “safe” songs, their life may tell a different story. That’s why people were so floored when Sandi Patty, Michael English, and Marabeth Jordan all cheated on their spouses. They didn’t look rebellious, so when their activities came to light, it was jarring. Patty’s and English’s songs got pulled from playlist rotations, they left their labels, and Christians had to figure out how to relate to them all over again. Jordan, meanwhile, has basically disappeared from the public eye, so no telling how she’s doing.

But yeah, back to the movie.

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While The Imposter succeeds message-wise, its issues are technical. I had to watch this film with my finger on the volume buttons because the levels were all over the place. I don’t know how much ADR was used in post-production, but it could have used more. Many of the scenes were shot in large, cavernous churches where there’s a lot of echo and places for the sound to disappear into. It’s one thing to impart good messages and bring the street cred, but none of that matters if no one can understand the dialogue.

The movie is also filmed poorly in spots–there are oddly composed scenes where the camera is too close to the actors and doesn’t allow for the movement to play out. There are also a couple of music videos-cum-montages of a Johnny-less Grand Design singing while Johnny goes it alone. It would be OK except that in one of them the lead singer is Sydney, a minor member of the band who doesn’t have much to do and whose hair is in her mouth during the close-ups. Really, guys? That’s just bad.

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The final thing was that there could have been a little more done to flesh out the characters. While the narration lets us inside Johnny’s head nicely, it would have been good to have more context. However, I did like that Johnny gradually sheds bits of his rock star persona, and where his character development becomes evident is whether or not he sheds them by choice.

I definitely didn’t hate The Imposter. I wish it had more polish. The acting is nothing to brag about. Still, it has a lot of strong points and shows a new side to Kevin Max, an enigmatic guy who approaches creativity on his own terms. Most importantly, it broaches very real issues that deserve close examination.

For more pop stars in film, please see Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews. Thanks for hosting, Gill–your Dear Hubby had a great idea! Thanks for reading, everyone, and see you soon…


The Imposter is available on DVD from Amazon.

9 thoughts on “Taking Off the Mask

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