Free At Last: the Movie, as any longtime dc Talk fan knows, has become a part of Christian Music legend. Originally filmed eight years ago, it was going to be the first of its kind for Christian Music: a bonafide movie/documentary, released to movie theaters all across America. But it was ultimately abandoned and never finished when its distribution deal fell through.
Now, on the tenth anniversary of Free At Last the album, Forefront Records is treating dc Talk fans to this long lost, much sought after piece of the band's history, in a special DVD package that comes complete with an anniversary edition of the album.
Free At Last: The Movie was filmed over the course of the Free At Last Tour, which was dc Talk's very first experience as tour headliners. The documentary-style film chronicles the days when the band first truly exploded, just before they reached their creative high (Jesus Freak) and were on the cusp of their full potential. All the ingredients were falling into place, and fans knew it, so dc Talk's popularity was soaring to unprecedented heights. It's easy to get nostalgic for those days now, looking back, considering all that has happened since.
First and foremost, it should be noted that this film is billed as "unfinished," and they're not kidding about that. This is obvious from the first moments of the film, when the words "Credit" and "Title" are repeatedly flashed on the screen where the title & credits would have eventually been inserted. (You'd think they could have afforded to at least finish that one little thing, wouldn't you?) And all throughout the film, analogue reference numbers are displayed at the bottom of the screen; it's a tool used for editing purposes, but they've never been removed.
Once the film got going, though, I honestly forgot all about those annoying little rough edges, and became completely wrapped up in what was happening. The ninety-minute film intermingles concert set pieces (some are complete songs, others merely portions) with Real World-style reality moments with the guys (only without the clichéd unreality). The concert segments are shown in full color, while the documentary portions are in black & white. It's a stylistic contrast that's only subliminally noticeable, but it's a tool used well to help viewers discern where the various "scenes" separate.
We've all heard the stories about the band's personality conflicts and internal strife, and Free At Last lays this all bare for the world to see. But the conflicts are surprisingly mild; there are no shouting matches or catfights. It's much more subtle, seeing them struggle not to say what they really want to. They really seem to struggle against pride, disharmony, and ego more than they fight with each other. But the proceedings are not devoid of conflict. On the opening night of the tour, Kevin disappears shortly before the concert is set to begin, and Toby makes the off-handed remark, "He's probably on a date." Another scene shows Toby's underlying frustration with listening to Michael complain about his voice not being 100% just before a show starts. There's also a scene with a full-fledged argument between Kevin and tour pastor Michael Guido. These moments of reality are welcome reminders that the guys of dc Talk (and in fact, all artists out there) are, above all else, human. It's also an unapolagetically fascinating glimpse behind the scenes into a level of reality that we never get to see.
The film gives each of the three guys his own moment in the spotlight. Michael Tait makes confessions about his constant fight against his own ego, and later makes a trip to a prison to visit his brother, who had been in and out of prison for eleven years at the time the film was shot. Kevin Max reveals a lot about himself and his quirky personality, much of which can be attributed to the fact that he was adopted, and at the time of the film he still didn't know who his birth parents were. He jumps into a lake in an impromptu moment that frightens everyone else, but he finds hilarious. Toby McKeehan talks about his own "split personality": the fun guy to hang out with and the perfectionist leader of the group, and how that has led to strife.
Cameos abound, including Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant, Mark Heimermann, Larry Norman, Billy Graham, Brennan Manning, and even the infamous Mrs. Morgan. We see the guys perform for their first Billy Graham Crusade; an effective sequence on racism is intercut with historical footage of brutal violence against anti-segregationist African Americans; a trip to the trio's alma mater, Liberty University, brings up the issue of legalism when people on campus take notice of the guys' appearance. Most of the content is serious in nature, although there are a few lighthearted scenes.
You can't help but admire dc Talk's willingness to be boldly vulnerable, to put themselves and their shortcomings on display this way. The fact that it was planned to be shown eight years ago, during a very different social climate in this industry, makes it even more amazing. The fact is, though, the world simply wasn't ready for this film when it was made. Had it been made today, it would probably be a different story. It was visionary, remarkably bold in every way. It just arrived too soon.
Free At Last: The Movie more than anything else, is a fascinating look at what it's like to be a "Christian superstar" (and anyone who thinks that that's an oxymoron should remember that we have an entire industry in place devoted to creating as many "Christian superstars" as possible), and all of the internal, spiritual struggles that go along with the phenomenon. I don't think that that struggle has ever before been captured with such potency. The guys take every opportunity to alter your notions of the "glitz and glamour of the rock star life," replacing it with the stark reality of three young guys just trying to figure all this out. Everything in the film practically screams, "We're just a bunch of regular guys who want to be real! We're not a product!"
That reason alone makes this film important -- perhaps even required -- viewing for any fan of Christian Music.
The DVD includes numerous extra features, including a nice audio commentary track by all three guys, in which they update us on the situations depicted in the film and how they've changed in the eight-year interim. The music videos for "Jesus Is Just Alright" and "The Hardway" are also included, as is a making-of featurette originally filmed for the movie's planned release in 1994, five deleted scenes, a photo gallery, and two trailers. The collection also comes with the full audio Free At Last CD, which has two added tracks: a completely re-made version of "The Hardway" and some audio commentaries from the guys.
Don't buy it for the album; chances are, you probably already have it, and there's really not enough new material on it to justify the purchase. Do buy it for the DVD. Even eight years later, Free At Last: The Movie holds up as perhaps the most true-to-life footage ever committed to film by any Christian artist.
Cover courtesy of Forefront Records.
By Robin Parrish