SXSW Film Review: ‘The Jones Family Will Make a Way’

The Jones Family Singers are a multigenerational Texas gospel ensemble profiled in Alan Berg's unsatisfying documentary.

With:
Fred A. Jones Sr., Michael Corcoran, Alexis Jones, Kenneth Freeman, Fred Jones Jr.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4074348/

A talented Texas Pentecostal clan’s attempts to bring their gospel music to a wider audience is the focus of “The Jones Family Will Make a Way.” Alan Berg’s documentary is moderately engaging but not particularly satisfying, as the subjects only begin to make progress toward their goal at the end of the pic’s timeframe, while the filmmakers don’t reveal much about the Joneses’ individual personalities or lives. A natural SXSW premiere, as that event figures in its narrative, the documentary will likely find minor prospects beyond the fest circuit — unless or until, of course, the titular act experiences a career breakthrough.

A brief prologue recounts the family’s earlier days, when Rev. Fred A. Jones raised his sizable brood — three children with his wife, and four more from her prior marriage — to be a crackerjack vocal and instrumental unit, with daughter Alexis a natural lead singer and Fred Jr. an impressive lead guitarist. They won a slew of prizes on the Southern gospel circuit, but a recording contract didn’t materialize as promise, and the fame that briefly seemed inevitable never arrived.

Some years later, the family still performs every week to Dad’s apparently small congregation in southeast Texas, as well as slogging to myriad guest gigs at other intimate churches and events that can only be poorly compensated, if at all. Alexis supports herself primarily as a hairdresser, while Fred Jr. runs a BBQ joint. (Other siblings and band members get very little attention here.)

But the Joneses do have a champion in their corner. Veteran rock critic Michael Corcoran has followed them for a decade, finding them a thrilling, anomalous throwback to the great gospel groups of another era. He arranges a showcase for them at SXSW, but it’s poorly attended. He gets them into the studio with a couple respected indie-rock producers (they’ve previously recorded and released several DIY CDs on their own), though taking musical instruction from strangers seems to be a discomfiting experience for at least some of them.

A return SXSW gig is painted as a triumph, though it appears no better attended than before. It’s only at the docu’s climax, when the Jones Family Singers play an outdoor summer gig at Lincoln Center, that pic really captures the performing dynamism that won Corcoran over, before a suitably large, enthused audience.

Whether due to filmmaker discretion or subject reluctance, we remain at arm’s length from the politely cooperative Jones family, and their relationship with the admittedly jaded, cranky Corcoran isn’t captured in any way sufficient to ballast its nominal role as the docu’s strange-bedfellows hook. There’s no background about the reverend’s church, though that clearly plays a primary role in the family’s life — even when they move to Houston in order to ramp up their career efforts, they continue a very long commute to hold and perform at services there.

Given that what’s onscreen doesn’t capture a lot of drama, it’s strange that the film doesn’t go an alternative route and lend the Joneses stature by limning their roots in gospel music history, as well as their place (if any) in its current marketplace reality — topics that Corcoran, at least, should certainly be able to expound on. But there’s little such contextualizing, leaving viewers without prior expertise to wonder what exactly makes the Joneses (according to their patron) so excitingly atypical among modern gospel acts. Are the qualities he finds in them ones that will help or hinder in today’s commercial landscape? That’s one of many seemingly key questions Berg’s feature declines to ask.

What it does show is some nice people of faith and evident talent (though even that could be better spotlit) who would like to make a living doing what they love. Whether they will or not remains to be seen, though the pic makes sure to end on a note suggesting better times ahead.

Assembly is decent in a verite vein.

SXSW Film Review: 'The Jones Family Will Make a Way'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, March 7, 2015. (In SXSW Film Festival — 24 Beats Per Second.) Running time: 84 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) An Arts + Labor production. Produced by Andrew Logan, Jason Wehling. Executive producers, Kristin Johansen-Berg, Erik Horn, Craig Parks, Yuta Yamaguchi.

Crew: Directed by Alan Berg. Screenplay, Alan Berg, Lauren Sanders, Jason Wehling. Camera (color, HD), Kyle Cockayne, Paul Rios Jr., Yuta Yamaguchi; editors, Berg, Wehling; music, Curtis Health; sound, Eric Friend.

With: Fred A. Jones Sr., Michael Corcoran, Alexis Jones, Kenneth Freeman, Fred Jones Jr.

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