The newly opened "Leap of Faith" is a parable of spiritual fraud, in the form of an ersatz preacher who's a cynical, preying charlatan. Ironically, though, the film is almost documentary-like in setting on celluloid another religious phenomenon that's very much for real: the jubilation of traditional African-American gospel music, a usually ghettoized genre bound to get its widest mainstream exposure in years through its prominent place in the picture.
Rather than settle for the usual loose Hollywood approximation of what a bona fide black choir might sound like, the producers determined to get the real article. Thus the Angels of Mercy--as the choir in the film is known--includes a virtual who's who of gospel, including choirmaster Edwin Hawkins, who pioneered pop-gospel cross-over with the 1969 Top 5 hit "Oh Happy Day," and singer Albertina Walker, founder of the legendary Caravans and widely revered as "the queen of gospel." Other stars of the genre both rising and established, from veteran Delores Hall to hot newcomer Ricky Dillard, are featured in the film and on the gospel-dominated soundtrack album.
The film's featured gospel performers claim that the Holy Spirit made frequent visitations to the "Leap of Faith" location shoot in Kansas last summer, closed set or no.
"You should've seen the director trying to yell cut, and wouldn't nobody stop shouting," Hall says. "I said to the crew, 'Y'all film that, that's real ,' because the Spirit came to them. We got to shouting and carrying on and praising God."
Adds Walker, "We weren't just performing, we weren't acting, we were really having service."
Rather than object to such classic Pentecostal spontaneity on the set, many among the crew apparently came to appreciate having it around, if only as an uplifting, unexpected antidote to the tensions and troubles circulating through the Hollywood rumor mill about the production.
"Our last day, there were people from the staff at Paramount crying," Hawkins relates. "They expressed to us that we were the reason that they stayed on, because they were fed up with a lot of things that were going on, but stuck around because of all the good music. And we know that it's not anything good that we're doing, but what we believe in and stand for, and it makes you feel good when you can be a source of inspiration."
While it would be an exaggeration to say the set was rife with revival, the gospel stars' presence did eventually instill some reverence among the film folk, if evidenced only by the sudden diminishment of profanity.
"None of us are angels," Hawkins says. "But we do strive to live what we sing about, and I think the people saw that, which made a difference. Because the last day on the shoot, one of the persons on the office staff said to me that there were some people that had rededicated their lives to God as a result of our being there." Any evangelism that went on, Hawkins stresses, was "not about forcing your beliefs. I think your very life itself ought to be the preaching."
It was Kathy Nelson, MCA Records' senior VP of soundtracks, who thought of bringing in Hawkins as well as the versatile producer George Duke, and those two then worked with the filmmakers in casting the choir members.
The script even had a choir director character named Ricky, based on the fact that the writer had seen Dillard's memorably flamboyant style of conducting in the PBS special "Goin' Home to Gospel With Patti LaBelle"; Hawkins' obvious suggestion was that they go ahead and get "the real Ricky."
"I was very pleased with the selection of music, how we stayed very traditional," points out Dillard, "even though Edwin Hawkins, who chose and arranged the music, opened the doors some years ago for a lot of the new contemporary cross-over people such as BeBe and CeCe Winans and Take 6. But this is what we consider to be soulful music, and the movie portraying the traditional sound of gospel really brings us to another height, that people can enjoy that traditional gospel is just as good as contemporary."
It took some convincing before everyone signed on, though.
"I was kind of leery of it," notes Walker--whose career has spanned 40 years and many albums--"because I didn't want to be caught up in something that would hurt me after the people saw this picture. I wasn't just so glad to be in a movie that I would do anything to be in a movie. I made sure they put in my contract that I wouldn't have to do anything that wasn't up to par as far as I'm concerned as a Christian person and as a gospel singer, such as cursing and things like that."
"I had a slight reservation," Hawkins says, "and that was only about whether or not this was going to be a mockery of the church. But I read the entire script and discovered at the end this preacher finds out that God does really work miracles and that God is real, and it left us on a very positive note, rather than just leaving it as a scam."
It was important to Hawkins that the choir be represented as not being in on the charade. As for the fakery of Steve Martin's lead character, he says, "It happens today, and we have a lot of people like that in church--not just preachers--who are very 'religious' but not really necessarily born again."
Hall was the one gospel singer in the cast who also has extensive experience with Hollywood--having gone from her Tony-winning performance on Broadway in "Your Arms Too Short to Box With God" to film roles, including the romance-crazed policewoman pursuing Danny Glover in "Lethal Weapon 3." The "Leap of Faith" shoot, she says, was "the first experience I've had where I've really had to incorporate trying to act with the spirit of God. It was a trip. Because we were on stage to a certain extent but really having church for real."
These gospel performers share the MCA soundtrack album with some of their secular counterparts. Some choices are appropriate to the theme: Lyle Lovett croons his traditional concert encore "Pass Me Not" as a duet with producer Duke, while Don Henley turns in a terrific pop-reggae variation on "Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat," Frank Loesser's quasi-gospel show tune from "Guys and Dolls."
But then there's the matter of the tune that closes out the album, despite being heard only briefly in the movie as source music coming from a car radio: "Paradise by the Dashboard Light," the hilarious but sexually explicit teen-lust mini-opera revived from a 1977 album by Meat Loaf, who has a small part in the film.
As it turned out, none of the gospel stars have listened to the entire album yet, and were a bit disheartened, to say the least, when a reporter informed them that their sounds of reverence were being packaged with something so determinedly risque.
"Now, things like that offend me," Hall says. "And I think that might be controversial. Because that'll sort of halfway defeat our purpose. We're up there portraying Christ and that type of thing, and then they're not strong enough or bold enough or confident enough of what we sold on that movie to sell it all the way? Why do you have to do all these other crazy things on the soundtrack that have nothing to do with the movie?"
Unfortunately, though the gospel stomper "Ready for a Miracle" (written especially for the film, and sung on the soundtrack by Patti LaBelle) is the tune moviegoers leave the theater humming, and would seem to have potential as the first traditional-gospelTop 40 hit since "Oh, Happy Day," MCA has no plans yet to release it as a single. That honor has instead been awarded to "Paradise by the Dashboard Light."
Still, the album and film alike make excellent primers in what's happening in the genre right now, according to Lisa Collins, Billboard magazine's columnist for black gospel. "I think the music is representative of a trend: new traditional," Collins says. "It's a traditional church sound with a more rhythmic, bold flair. . . . I hope it does give gospel a shot of adrenaline in terms of the entertainment value of what they do. Because gospel has a message, that should enhance its value to people, but I don't think its entertainment value should be overlooked."
Albertina Walker thinks "Leap of Faith" may be the right vehicle to target the wider audience hard-core gospel rarely reaches.
"This is what I'm praying so hard for, that the masses of people who have never experienced gospel music will get a chance to hear it and feel what we feel," Walker says. "Because what's from the heart reaches the heart, and if you got a heart and you listen to what we're doin', you're gonna feel something--white, black, yellow, green, red, it don't make no difference, you goin' to feel something. People gonna go to see Steve (Martin)--and to see Steve, they gotta look at us!"