There’s an interesting story — or a couple of them — itching to get out of “Parallel Love: The Story of a Band Called Luxury,” a documentary about a struggling ‘90s indie-rock group from the South that soldiered on before and after three of its members became Orthodox priests. Who could resist the story of a band that’s berobed by day, rocking out by night? An early shot of one of the group’s ordained members sprinkling holy water onto a drum kit prior to a recording session whets your appetite for a shaggy dog story, or a shaggy-bearded-rocker-cleric story.
The plot either thickens or gets less interesting, depending on where you’re coming from, when you learn (if you weren’t already part of the group’s modest cult following) that Luxury was part of the Christian post-punk scene, associated with the Tooth & Nail label that made a splash in the ‘90s. Going from thrashy misfit evangelicals to mellow, middle-aged liturgists is still a transition, and a reasonably interesting one, if not as radical a conversion as the moshpit-to-ancient-rites-ministering transformation the movie initially sets you up for.
“Parallel Love,” then, at its heart, is less a fish-out-of-water story than a variant on the oft-told tale of church kids who formed bands and longed to make edgy music for the masses — and who, to their eternal frustration, if not damnation, bought it when somebody assured them signing with a cool faith-based label around was a roundabout ticket to the mainstream. (Eastern Orthodoxy may go back a long way, but “No, you won’t get stuck in the Christian ghetto — sign here” is really the oldest story in the world.) If there’s a third-act wrinkle on that familiar story here, it’s that the three clerics in Luxury are too immersed in contemplative practice to still be getting ulcers about what could have been; they’ve got flocks as well as fans to attend to.
“Parallel Love” is in the tradition of half the rock docs ever made, from the movie about Badfinger’s downfall to “Searching for Sugar Man” — the ones that ask, “Why wasn’t this act huge?” (and, implicitly, “Can our belated movie make up the gap?”). It also asks you to believe, or consider — a la the recent biography of Christian rock pioneer Larry Norman — that it was only the taint of the evangelical subculture that kept the band from becoming massively popular, or at least wildly influential. “I would have loved to have seen them on (the) Kill Rock Stars or Discord (labels),” says one expert witness. “They would have been as big as Fugazi or as big as Sleater-Kinney, for sure.”
He might be right, but the fact that it’s the band’s former publicist contending this is a sign of an insularity that keeps tripping up the film — a fairly inevitable shortfall of perspective when the director/writer/editor/producer is actually a member of the band, albeit a later addition, Matt Hinton. He’s not without filmmaking cred, having previously helmed the well-regarded “Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp,” so you can’t blame him for wanting to use his own found footage as well as new interviews to cover a subject much closer to home. But his extreme proximity makes him interested in fan servicing that’s not of much use to newcomers to Luxury. Hinton covers the evolution in his band’s sound but avoids some topics that would have seemed pretty obvious to an outside director. Like: Given that Orthodoxy is not a practice that puts a high premium on engaging with pop culture, what do the priests’ possibly old-school congregants think about their spiritual leaders still rocking out in their spare time? But we never meet any of them.
Hinton might also be a bit too intimidated by the band’s frontman, Lee Bozeman, who seems charismatic and fascinating enough to power a documentary on his own, but who remains an elusively cerebral presence in the contemporary interviews. Having grown up obsessed with the Smiths, Bozeman brought a Morrissey-like flamboyance to the group’s early performances, and some of that star’s then-uncertain sexuality, too. A few lyrics excerpted from Luxury’s early ‘90s albums seem downright homoerotic, although interviewees in the film ascribe that mostly to the band wanting to push the buttons of the Christian part of their audience. Bozeman is cagey, at best, on the subject, flatly denying at one point that it ever crossed his mind that anyone could have read “I’ll touch him, I’ll be kind” as a gay lyric.
At the beginning of the film, Bozeman is seen stepping out onto a small-town Texas street in his clerical robe and confessing in voiceover, “There’s times I don’t wear it because I don’t want to be looked at, if I’m going to the post office or wherever. But there’s plenty of times where I do wear it because I do want to be looked at.” Once a would-be star, always a would-be star, you think — but that’s one of the last times we get a sense the singer-priest still has that streak of mischief.
Hinton has better luck as an interviewer of bandmates with the group’s vulnerable, still baby-faced drummer, Glenn Black (one of the non-priests), getting into some harrowing family history. You want to hug him as much as you want to lean in and try to draw something out of the guarded Bozeman. Black is particularly vivid in describing the van crash that nearly killed some of the members in the mid-‘90s, a harrowing event that’s understandably played up in synopses and even in the film itself, but which ultimately isn’t portrayed as really having affected the group’s trajectory that greatly.
Was Luxury as good — and, consequently, as tragically thwarted — as a parade of friends. family and a couple of critics (including an atheist writer from Vice) tell us? Maybe. There’s enough teasing verve there that you do wish some of the live performances played out in full. For those of us who haven’t heard the records (which would be most of the viewing audience — even Tooth and Nail’s founder says sales were minimal), we’ll have to take it on faith, or go stream. “It is easier to stay out [of the Christian subculture] than to get out,” says a musician friend. “They say the same thing about actresses: Don’t start with porn and then think you’re gonna become a real actress.”
You wish Hinton had spent more time exploring the idea that, in Orthodoxy, the priests in Luxury seem to have found something more punk-rock than, you know, actually playing punk-rock. Both cultures tend to be full of OG passionistas who believe that everyone else has lost the true way. As an admirer from the punk scene is heard to say about Luxury’s shift toward the priesthood, “That’s so much more committed to your beliefs than a lot of the bands and the kids ever were.” But three-hour SRO liturgical services, like hardcore gigs, do weed out the poseurs.