The biggest sin the filmmakers committed in “The Gospel” was casting Donnie McClurkin — the best male gospel artist around — and not allowing him to sing.
Otherwise, “The Gospel” is not a bad little film…if you look beyond its preachiness and hackneyed plot that’s as old as, well, the Good Book itself.
The story, set in Atlanta, begins in 1992 when two teens and lifelong friends — David Taylor (Michael J. Pagan) and his friend Frank — are active members of a large church pastored by David’s father, Pastor Fred Taylor (Clifton Powell of “Ray”). All appears blissful until David’s mother suddenly takes ill. He rushes to the hospital just in time for mom’s last breath, but dad isn’t there.
A sorrowful Pastor Taylor explains that he was out “doing the Lord’s work” and couldn’t break away. “It’s complicated, son,” he tells young David, who can’t forgive him. Pastor Taylor was never around and lavished more time, David rages, on his congregation than on his family. “I hate you!” David shouts, vowing to shed all ties to religion.
He keeps his word.
Fast forward to the present, when the adult David (Boris Kodjoe of Showtime’s “Soul Food”) is an Usher-esque superstar. But bad news finds him: Pastor Taylor has cancer, and the prodigal son is summoned home, where everything has taken a turn for the worse. The church building is crumbling, and bankers are threatening to foreclose on its mortgage within 30 days. As if this weren’t enough, Pastor Taylor has anointed David’s childhood pal Frank — now a grasping minister with personal visions of worldly grandeur — as his successor.
Frank (British-born actor Idris Alba, importing his thuggish persona as “The Wire’s” Russell “Stringer” Bell) dreams of pastoring the masses in a mega-church and hopes to reach millions more through a television ministry. In his eyes, Pastor Taylor’s impending death can’t happen soon enough.
In the meantime, the church needs money. The predictable solution? David will stage an all-star benefit gospel show filled with superstar talent.
And what talent. Gospel music superstars Yolanda Adams, Fred Hammond, Martha Munizzi and “American Idol” finalist Tamyra Gray. Miss Gray, a Takoma Park native, turns in a so-so performance as Rain, David’s love interest, and gets a chance once more to showcase her chops. She’s good, but she’s no match for Miss Adams’ astonishing vocal prowess.
The concert, “Gospel’s” strongest suit, goes well — but the movie descends downhill from there. Mr. Kodjoe’s obligatory lament at his father’s grave is almost laughable. Mr. Alba’s Frank sees the error of his selfish ways, but instead of an epiphany, salvation comes while he’s sipping wine with his wife, Charlene (an ever-scowling Nona Gaye) in their million-dollar mansion. And poor Mr. McClurkin (a mega-selling artist and Oscar-nominee for penning “I Am” from “The Prince of Egypt”) is relegated to a thankless role as the church’s righteous, but lowly, assistant pastor.
Director Rob Hardy gets good mileage from Omar Gooding as David’s sidekick and business manager, Wesley, but near “Gospel’s” end he seems to abandon both his actors and his plot.
However, Mr. Hardy and the producers of “Gospel” have nothing to fear. Taking a leaf from Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and T.D. Jakes’ “Woman, Thou Art Loosed,” “Gospel” has been marketed to church groups nationwide — and congregants have taken the film’s title to heart and spread the word.
The movie is filled with joyous, toe-tapping sounds, and that’s why this “Gospel” is indeed good news.
TITLE: “The Gospel”
RATING: PG for some adult situations
CREDITS: Directed and written by Rob Hardy. Produced by William Packer, Dianne Ashford, Bernard Bronner, Holly Davis Carter and Fred Hammond. Cinematography by Matthew MacCarthy. Original music by Kirk Franklin and Stanley A. Smith.
RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS