An ego-maniacal Baptist reverend and a sexy pop star who has drifted from his Christian roots stumble toward redemptions of a sort in “The Gospel,” a creaky melodrama that wants to be a musical. Mimicking a traditional movie tuner, director Rob Hardy’s script allows for plenty of gospel music to bridge the gaps in his slight drama centered around a struggling Atlanta church. Pic will find its target auds with families, Christian groups and gospel fans, especially in cities with solid African American congregants.
Already displaying his chops and charisma, young David (Michael J. Pagan) leads rapturous churchgoers in song and is planning to become a minister as is his pal Frank (Sean Nelson). When David’s father, Bishop Taylor (Clifton Powell), arrives too late to be with his wife when she dies at a hospital, David lashes out at him and runs away.
Fifteen years later (and, presumably, in the present), David (Boris Kodjoe) has become an R&B star with his sexy new hit, “Let Me Undress You,” and has obviously flown far from his old Baptist flock, including dad.
Word that Bishop Taylor is ailing, however, brings David back home to Atlanta, where he finds a financially-troubled church with a gifted choir. Frank (Idris Elba), who has become a reverend and is set to inherit Taylor’s ministry, is immediately resentful of David’s sudden re-appearance and his use of his star power to help the church. To make Frank’s life worse, wife Charlene (Nona Gaye) is infertile and feels uninspired to have sex.
From the moment that David gives tips to the chorus, takes up with soloist Rain (Tamyra Gray) and arranges to produce a fund-raiser for the church, it’s clear that the prodigal son is destined to return to the flock. It’s just as obvious that Hardy’s drama is intent on making the supposedly devout Frank the heavy, particularly after Taylor dies and Frank assumes leadership with all the self-inflated ego of a Jim Bakker.
With visions of an evangelical empire dancing in his brain, Frank has an unerring ability for repelling everyone around him, from Charlene to church vet Minister Hunter (Donnie McClurkin). David has his own little dramas, involving a music deal gone bad and Rain’s ex (Dwayne Boyd) suddenly showing up.
But the passionately performed music numbers — most written by Kirk Franklin and performed by a dynamic chorus under Keith Wilson’s direction — come along frequently enough to keep the increasingly awkward dramatics from sinking “The Gospel” altogether. As in a musical whose book is several miles behind its music and lyrics, the tunes provide some blessed breaks to let the movie breath a little.
Hardy tends to urge his thesps to push obvious emotional buttons, but Kodjoe goes for a subtler approach that makes him quite watchable. Powell, always a reliable supporting actor, holds up his end like a rock, while Elba indulges in bad-guy long stares.
Pic is undermined by a TV-scale look and Fernando Villena’s senselessly hyperactive editing. In contrast to Franklin’s genuine gospel, Stanley A. Smith’s score verges on muzak.