1992 saw the release of one of the most important releases in the history of Christian music. The hip hop record Free At Last from the phenomenon known as dc Talk made unstoppable waves in the Christian music industry, raising the bar for future musicians and records. In 1994, the trio gathered with a few film makers and a director to discuss the possibilities of putting together a feature film to expose the reality and truth and transparency of the dynamic three that make up dc Talk. Several cameras followed the guys around most everywhere they went during the 1994 "Free At Last Tour" to capture a behind-the-scenes look at the guys. The film was edited to about two hours in length and then edited again to about 90 minutes. By the time they had tried to get distribution for the film in theaters, negotiations weren't completed. The film was looking at a September 1995 release but with a new album and a new sound poised to debut in November, it seemed futile and the movie was soon abandoned and shelved. The film was never finished.
Fast-forward seven years. Long after the hats and t-shirts for the film have been trashed and the band barely united as a group anymore, the 10th Anniversary for Free At Last is largely being recognized and remembered. In a brilliant and most appreciated effort to tip a hat to the project, the film, raw and unfinished as-is has been printed onto a DVD for viewing by the world. The highly anticipated project will finally be seen by the committed and loyal followers of this mega group.
So what is Free At Last: The Movie? This a question only vaguely answered over the years and this review will take a moderately detailed look at its content and delivery... The movie appropriately opens with shots of the guys walking out onto the stage and setting up. It's clear from the get-go that the budget was low and the cinematography raw. For most of the movie numbers from the original film print run at the bottom of each segment. More surprisingly, the title and end credits were unfinished and instead read "Credit" or "Title" in place of where the credits should have been inserted. I found this aspect rather disappointing. It's really cool they kept it as-is but it's also puzzling why they didn't take a little extra time to complete it before release on DVD. It would have been cool to include perhaps the rough cut on one disc or as one feature and the "new" finalized version as the main feature. The concert segment opens with "Say the Words" with shots from the concert and behind-the-scenes snippets intertwined into the footage. This is how most of the segments go as "Luv is a Verb" follows as well as a narrative segment talking about the band's experience with their road pastor on the tour. A short live clip of "Word 2 The Father" leads into a segment about the band's handling of their new-found fame (at the time) and awards they were graced with including a Grammy. An older tune from the group leads into the bluesy reprise of "Jesus Is Just Alright" which begins with footage of the stage crew setting up before switching over to live shots. A more lengthy narrative portion regarding the band's first experience with a Bill Graham crusade offers a live montage of the band's original cut of "Jesus Is Just Alright."
One of the most interesting and emotionally moving segments follows as the group discusses their experiences with filming their music video for "The Hardway" in Detroit, Michigan on location at a prison. It was cool to see shots of the group mingling with the convicts, reflecting on their experience and offering live footage of the band playing for the inmates that night following the video shoot. This lead into Michael Tait's experiences with his brother, just thirteenth months apart from him in age and his experiences with prison. Appropriately, "Lean On Me" followed which covered the topic of family and included a montage of crew and artists interacting with the band, giving glimpses of such artists as Amy Grant, Grits, Michael W. Smith, Larry Norman, Out of Eden, and Mark Stuart of Audio Adrenaline. The next segment found the group in San Francisco where Toby expressed his frustration with MTV and their rejection of the group's "Hardway" video. This lead into "Socially Acceptable" and footage of Tait's experience singing at a friend's wedding.
More sensitive issues were touched on next, like the group's struggle with pride and a disharmony when they were off stage. Another intriguing clip featured Kevin and his frustration with not knowing who his real parents were and the inner struggles it has caused him. Their cover of U2's "40" fit nicely here. Next the group reflected on their experiences with their alma mater, Liberty University which brought to mind the importance of the problem of legalism in Christianity. "Heavenbound," one of the band's first recorded songs was presented next as well as their cover of Larry Norman's "I Wish We'd All Been Ready," which mixed in a brief discussion the guys had with Norman himself. The narrative touch flipped its focus more to Toby McKeehan's life next, with quotes from Kevin, Michael, his wife Amanda, and even their road pastor as they discussed his leadership and what drives him. The song "Free At Last" made an important lead-in to the topic of racism and the way it has affected the guys, namely Toby and Michael. A live presentation of "Walls" and "Time Is," featuring guest guitarist Barry Blair (then with Audio Adrenaline, now a full-time producer) and consisted of a montage of live clips and vintage clips from history of the times of segregation. Surprisingly, a few brutal images of African Americans being abused were shown, including a brief shot of a man being beaten with a chair, a crowd trampling people and not stopping to help those fallen, etc. Though shocking, they're brief and not graphic, just may appear disturbing to some viewers.
The film winds down as the group returns to their home of Franklin, Tennessee and offers a brief glimpse of the house they recorded their next album, Jesus Freak, in, entitled "The House of Insomnia." Naturally, the famed neighbor of the house, Mrs. Morgan, was interviewed about the problems she had with the band's drummer making too much noise, making for a humorous addition to the film considering her quote made a track on Jesus Freak. From there the film closes with a brief instrumental sample from the song "Jesus Freak" before one last road clip ends the movie abruptly with no credits. I found the film very interesting. It held the viewer's attention through-out but it was clear there wouldn't have been much appeal for anyone besides real dc Talk fans. I couldn't imagine anyone besides diehard dcT fans sitting down for 90 minutes to watch something like this. For fans, however, it's perfect and an honest look into the artists' lives. The problem I found, however, is it's their lives 8 years ago and only leaves the question as to what life is like now for the dcT guys with them being 8 years older and more seasoned and how they might look back on the times of 1994. Thankfully, the closest to that we have is the feature commentary offered from all three guys as an alternate option for while watching the film. It's really cool to hear they guys comment on certain moments, offer what their thoughts at that time were, about the music, their hair and clothing styles. It was humorous and interesting at the same time. An applauded feature for the disc.
For other features of the film we're treated to five deleted scenes, all relatively interesting and fun to watch. A lengthy and in-depth "making of" featurette is also included, which is composed of the band and the film's producers and director discussing what went into making the project. Finally, two music videos ("The Hardway" and "Jesus Is Just Alright"), live photos, and original and new trailers round out this project, making it a solid anniversary nod for a solid album. Fans, don't miss this DVD. It's not only a vital piece of dc Talk history, but a vital piece in the history of Christian music and dares to tackle topics that still have relevance eight years later. At last! It's here!- Review date: 12/16/02, written by John DiBiase
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