Documentaries are often made with good intentions, sometimes to spotlight the life of a beloved figure, reveal previously unknown details about a historical event, or expose the dark sides of governments and corporations. Of course there are myriad subjects documentaries can cover, but just because these films offer actual slices of life with new and archival footage and interviews, a lot of people don’t realize that it doesn’t all just come together after someone goes out with a camera to shoot something. Documentaries do need an outline so the filmmakers can focus on the story they want to tell with their film. The best documentaries make it all seem effortless while others stumble and seem like everything was shot on the fly.
Which brings us to The Gospel of Eureka, a film full of good intentions and many moving parts but a rather haphazard storytelling style. The film is set in the small Arkansas town of Eureka Springs, home to the Christ of the Ozarks, a giant statue of Jesus reminiscent of Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer, towering over the small town. Eureka Springs is also home to “The Great Passion Play,” an outdoor theatrical event chronicling the final days and resurrection of Jesus. On the other side of the coin, Eureka Springs appears to have a thriving LGBTQ community with drag shows taking place at a local gay bar run by two locals who have no problem reconciling their personal lives with their religious beliefs. The movie also adds to the mix an election with a “bathroom bill” on the ballot, while a Christian t-shirt designer talks about the love he has for his gay father.
That’s a lot going on in a movie that runs 73 minutes and is stuffed to the gills with long shots of the town and surrounding landscape. The film certainly has good intentions of attempting to show how in this very small, conservative part of the country, religion and the LGBTQ community can and do coexist peacefully (of course, there are always some people who don’t approve and they are represented as the election heats up). But the problem is that the parts never really come together as a whole except for the fact that it all takes place in Eureka Springs.
The film especially tries hard to tell us something by juxtaposing the completely over-the-top Passion Play production with an even more over-the-top drag show in which the queens perform gospel songs! But we never see any of the performers involved in either come together to actually show us that the two communities do respect one another. The owners of the bar do make a stop at the Christ of the Ozarks – which curiously has his back to the Passion Play – but it would have been nice to see them interact with the owner of the show or the guy who plays Jesus (who is really into his character). It’s actually fascinating to watch how the Passion Play is produced but it never meshes with the other stories in the film … except with a trans woman who is active in the campaign to have the bathroom bill repealed. She and her partner attend a performance of the Passion Play but again it feels completely disconnected from the rest of the movie – as does the grown son of the gay father who is very forthright with his kids when it comes to talking about his father. That was actually refreshing considering the setting, but still it’s not really connected to anything else. The town even has two separate parades, one a sort of celebration of Jesus that hawks the Passion Play, and another a Pride parade (that does include religious symbols where the other parade does not seem to include the LGBTQ community at all). Perhaps it would have all felt a little more complete if we’d seen all of the various subjects gather together at the town’s church for Sunday service.
Where the movie does get really interesting is when it delves into the dark history of Eureka Springs. Gerald L.K. Smith, a former acolyte of Senator Huey Long, went to Eureka Springs to create a religious theme park, founding the Passion Play and commissioning the Christ of the Ozarks. Smith was also known as “the deadliest and damnedest orator ever heard” when he was on the pulpit, and has since been denounced as a racist, anti-Semite, and Holocaust denier. Smith and his wife are buried at the heel of the Christ statue instead of in front. There was so much interesting information in the few minutes devoted to Smith that it makes one wish for a longer documentary about him. The real “stars” of the movie, however, are Kent Butler (Jesus) and Lee and Walter, the owners of the bar, which they refer to as a “hillbilly Studio 54.” But … they never interact, and it would have been nice to see some kind of connective storytelling. As it is, the whole thing feels like it was shot on-the-fly and cobbled together with no real direction or purpose. The intentions of the filmmakers unfortunately get lost (and if you watch the trailer, it seems to promise more than the film ultimately delivers). In the end, The Gospel of Eureka, with wry, folksy narration by Justin Vivian Bond, left me wanting a lot more. The film is released on DVD (April 9th) and includes a handful of deleted scenes and the film’s trailer. There is also a essay on the film in a booklet included with the DVD. The Gospel of Eureka isn’t a bad documentary – it just feels incomplete, never adding up the sum of its many parts. But you may feel differently.