Docurama // 2006 // 168 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Katie Herrell (Retired) // May 29th, 2007
"Once you walk through the door you're a member."
I originally saw the first two episodes of One Punk Under God at the Charlottesville Film Festival and was instantly hooked. Not because I am a Jim and Tammy Faye junkie, but because Jay's story is so unique. By all appearances Jay is a "punk." His outward appearance suggests a million stereotypes. And in many ways his life, his actions, confirm those stereotypes. He smokes, likes angry and alternative music (or so his t-shirt collection implies), skateboarded as a child, and married an almost equally tattooed woman who sports (amazingly well) the most unnatural red hair I've ever seen. But then he stands up in front of his church and preaches about acceptance and God's love and anything stereotypical about Jay goes out the window.
Jay Bakker is the "prodigal son" of the infamous religious duo, Jim and Tammy Faye. In the midst and wake of his parents scandalous fall from grace, Jay drops out of high school, develops a drinking problems and covers himself with tattoos and piercings. But when he emerges from his self destruction, he finds he still loves and values his parents and believes in God -- so much so that he opens his own church, Revolution, where he resides as preacher. Only one twist -- his church is in a bar. This is the documentary television series of Jay Bakker, Preacher.
This series isn't about Jim and Tammy Faye, but their thumbprint is everywhere and they appear in almost every episode. Despite their overly caricatured existence (and appearance in Tammy Faye's case), they are not the stars of this series. This series is about Jay's relationship with God, his wife, his church, and his parents. But it is not touchy-feely and it is not overtly emotional. But, then again, it is both of those things.
Episode One offers a look back at Jay's childhood. He visits the abandoned ruins of Heritage USA, the Christian retreat (amusement park) that his parent's built at the height of their television evangelism success. Now it is a ghost park, and Jay trolls the empty grounds reminiscing about his childhood. He even reverts to child-like behavior during the scene, jumping around the park and pointing eagerly at the site of one of his birthday parties. It is one of several instances where Jay will revert to a child-like attitude, and as the series wears on it is apparent Jay still struggles from the neglect he received from his parents, especially his father.
This series does a wonderful job of catching the reflective Jay, the immature Jay and the striving, successful Jay. There are at least two beautiful shots where Jay is framed by a door-frame, shot from behind. One particular shot is in an abandoned Heritage USA building. Twilight-esque lighting fills the empty door-frame, and although the more religious minded might see Biblical imagery in the shot, from a cinematic vein it is simply a perfect melding of time and setting. The door-frame shots also captures Jay's transitionary state of mind and life.
In Episodes Two and Three, the series looks at Jay's present life. He contemplates, and ultimately decides, that he doesn't believe homosexuality is a sin and opens his church doors to the community. It is a stigmatizing stance for a minister and the ramifications for his ministry are great. At one point, after a major donor withdraws support over Jay's decision, the Revolution business manager informs Jay they have only one month of finances left.
Another cinematic success of this series is that it shows the grittiness of American life and the people who dwell there. While Jay and Amanda live in a very nice apartment in a middle-income high rise, there are numerous shots of dark street corners and rusty signs. Jay's church is in a seedy bar/club in Atlanta called "The Masquerade." Revolution's main office is housed in a Sprayglo Auto Refinishing and Body Repair, and the shop's owner, Stu, who oversees Revolution is a middle-aged, overweight husband, father and businessman.
The average aspects of Jay's life stand in stark comparison to his parent's current lives and the Bakker family history. Jim and Tammy Faye were divorced many years ago after Jim had an affair and spent time in prison for conspiracy and mail fraud. Their presence in this series serves as a constant reminder of Jay's irregular upbringing. Jim still hosts a television religious show and Tammy Faye still paints her eyes eggshell blue and draws on a second mouth.
Through person-to-camera monolgues we hear every person's side of the Bakker story, as it relates to Jay and his relationship with the speaker. All of the main people in this film -- Jay, Jim, Tammy Faye and Jay's wife Amanda -- are astonishingly candid about their eventful history. These are people who have made some serious mistakes and they seem truly remorseful. It is easy to see why Jay still pines for a relationship with his parents because despite their infamy they are amazingly human and relatable.
During the series Tammy Faye is struggling with cancer and even as she tries to keep up appearances and maintain an effervescent personality it is obvious she is deteriorating. This fact further humanizes her as it demonstrates even the most fervid believer in God is not immune to pain and hardship.
The last several episodes draw the spotlight onto Jay's wife as she applies for, and is ultimately accepted, into a pre-med program at NYU. Jay's wife is a fascinating figure. She is beautiful and intelligent and so accepting of Jay and his goals despite her outward dislike of his being a minister. In one out-take she rails on the concept of a "preacher's wife" and articulately depicts how demeaning the phrase is. She has obvious love for Tammy Faye but seems smartly wary of Jim based on how much he has hurt Jay.
Amanda's acceptance into NYU means a difficult decision for Jay on whether to leave his church and the city he loves which is near his ailing mother. He, thankfully, decides to make the move and is forced to tearfully turn Revolution over to the more conservative Stu.
During the entire film there is an interesting soundtrack which is the most noticeable during the opening of new scenes. The music is all acoustic, and it seems to be a cross between a high school prom that actually popped for a local band and an indie group set up in a smoky corner of a dimly-lit bar. In a way, the music is emblematic of Jay himself. The "punk" persona seems one that is sort of stuck in childhood as the teenage usuals of ripped jeans and high tops are punk wardrobe staples. Jay himself is caught between trying to form a bond with his father that most people cement as a child and trying to be a grown-up husband and preacher. More than anything this series is a character study of the differing factors that determine a person's very existence.
Despite Jay's very controversial decision to open his door to the gay community, the series seems to gloss over the outcome of that decision. We learn that the donor withdraws and finances are tight, but we never hear of the long-terms effects. When Jay and Amanda decide to move to New York and Stu takes over there is no discussion of how the Revolution bills are being paid or whether Stu, who does not support homosexuality, renounces Jay's stance. It is hard to tell if the time-span of the series just didn't cover these outcomes, or if the producers decided to downplay the homosexual story-line in an effort to neutralize the series.
There is also little insight into how Jay sets up a new Revolution in NYC, as he goes from handing out flyers to preaching in a new dive bar. It seems altogether too easy -- but then again he is a Bakker. Also, the church's business manager up and moves to NYC with Jay and Amanda, but there's no mention of how him, or any of them, support themselves in one of the country's most expensive cities as they work to start a new church and Amanda attends school.
After the showing of the first two episodes of One Punk Under God at the Charlottesville Film Festival, Jay and the series producer appeared for a Q&A session. While I don't remember Jay being particularly mesmerizing in person, what struck me was the neediness of several members of the audience. Asking repeated questions, and professing their adoration of Jay and his church, it was obvious that Jay's "alternative" church, open to anyone and everyone, fills a void in this country's religious landscape.
Guilty. When does the next episode come out?
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 168 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
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