A documentary on the vagaries of holiday consumerism

What Would Jesus Buy?

on November 21, 2007 by Mark Keizer

Sung to the tune of “Deck the Halls”

See the hostile crowds before us. Fa la la la la, la la la la
Grab that last toy, more stuff for us. Fa la la la la, la la la la
Avoid the mob of greedy parents. Fa la la la la, la la la la
Fake smiles are just for appearance. Fa la la la la, la la la la

—Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir

Any day now, “Dateline NBC,” “ABC Primetime” and “60 Minutes” will hammer home the following numbers: American consumer credit debt is at an all-time high of $2.4 trillion. On last year’s Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and the traditional start of the holiday buying season, 140 million Americans hit the malls and spent more than $20 billion. With higher gas prices and an increasing number of homeowners struggling to avoid foreclosure, wallets may not open as wide in 2007. Nevertheless, such profligate spending is the shameful essence of Christmas in America, in which love for family is expressed by purchasing gifts, many of which are beyond the means of the givers and hardly essential for the receivers.

It’s a truism that’s given lip service every holiday season, but for the better part of 10 years, it’s a message that’s been delivered by a very unique messenger. Dressed in a white caterer’s jacket and preacher’s collar and topped by a healthy shock of bleach-blonde hair, “Reverend Billy” Talen has sermonized against the evils of Christmas consumerism along with his 35-member Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir.

Rob VanAlkemade’s documentary follows Reverend Billy and his choir on their winter tour of America, performing in churches, malls and door-to-door, spreading the word that Christmas has become an excuse to go into massive debt in a frenzy of unnecessary spending that has nothing to do with the real meaning of Christmas. While no one doubts Reverend Billy’s nondenominational fervor and worthwhile message, the documentary is too limp of delivery and diffuse of purpose to result in anything more than a few seconds of chin-stroking, followed by another swipe of a maxed-out credit card. There’s zero serious debate or, in the absence of insight, wicked propagandizing of the kind that marked the anti-fast food screed Super Size Me, directed by Morgan Spurlock, who’s a producer on this film.

Momentarily putting aside the validity of the film’s message, Reverend Billy’s cross-country trek, which includes a stop at the Mall of America, is awfully repetitive. Once you’ve seen Billy’s anti-consumerist tent revival, it doesn’t differ much. We learn next to nothing about what drives Talen, who began preaching against the Disneyfication of Times Square (“the Stonehenge of logos”) in 1997. His wife Savitri is the group’s director, and VanAlkemade misses a chance for her to draw any honest emotions or doubts out of her husband, especially when the group’s tour bus is rear-ended by a big-rig, resulting in 13 choir members being taken to the hospital.

The tour ends with a Christmas visit to ultimate corporate nemesis Disneyland (teasingly, the opening credits are in Disney typeface), where Billy proselytizes down Main Street before getting thrown off the premises and into jail. Talen has spent a lot of time in jail since assuming his Reverend Billy identity. He’s even banned in every Starbucks in California.

While Christmas consumerism is the main thrust of Reverend Billy’s message, it has diversified to include the treatment of Wal-Mart employees, the only section of the film where VanAlkemade digs in and strikes a nerve. Although Wal-Mart’s Darth Vader-brand of capitalism has been covered in other documentaries, watching a gaggle of young girls contact Wal-Mart to ask which Third World country manufactures their goods is an energizing moment of activism in bloom.

In a film where analysis and expert testimony is scarce, we do learn that teenagers in Bangladesh work 18-hour days and earn 13 cents an hour cranking out merchandise for the retail behemoth. To his credit, Reverend Billy practices what he preaches, stopping at a mom-and-pop clothing store to buy a Made in the USA sweater, sold by a proprietor lamenting how the world’s largest retailer is steamrolling smaller stores into oblivion.

Reverend Billy is a charismatic presence, even if his shtick is too silly and the documentary too unfocused to motivate any serious change in the nation’s holiday spending habits. The most revealing moments involve interviews with holiday shoppers (a brief opportunity to discuss shopping addiction is sadly missed) who shame the species with comments like, “I would not want to celebrate Christmas if there’s no gifts,” and “Sometimes you have to buy your clothes at a certain place or else you won’t be considered normal.”

Maybe they should spend some time with Ruben, a former homeless man whose sad little room in a fleabag motel is decorated for the holidays. He won’t receive many gifts this Christmas, and what he receives won’t cost much. But he’ll be truly thankful for everything he gets.

Distributor: Warrior Poets
Cast: Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir
Director: Rob VanAlkemade
Producers: Peter Hutchison, Stacey Offman and Morgan Spurlock
Genre: Documentary
Rating: PG for thematic material and brief mild language
Running time: 90 min.
Release date: November 16, 2007 NY, November 21 LA, November 30 and December exp.

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