Some of you might be familiar with Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir. You might have seen the blond pompadour’d preacher spitting verse about the evils of capitalism in the midst of Times Square, that hedonistic Disney orgy. You may have passed cash into the collection plate (donations support the non-profit church) at a performance in St. Marks-In-The-Bowery church; we hope you raised your hands and shouted AMEN, BROTHER! during any of his year-round sermons. You may have been trapped inside a Starbucks while the good Reverend was attempting to exorcize the cash register, much to the dismay of the baristas and police officers — Billy has been arrested over 40 times; there is also a cease and desist order that bars him from within 100 feet of every Starbucks in California. You may have found him inspirational, irritating, arrogant, ostentatious, ear-splitting, or all of the above. You might think he’s being ironic or insincere. If you’ve never heard his message or just don’t get it, there’s an opportunity for all sinners and spenders this Friday when the Reverend Billy documentary What Would Jesus Buy? opens at Cinema Village.
Reverend Billy (real name: Bill Talen) is a street performer and spectacle maestro who found his calling in 1999 when he realized that the road to damnation is paved with 17% interest credit cards. Having developed his persona in San Francisco, Reverend Billy moved his portable spectacle to NYC in the 1990s, right in the midst of Giuliani’s sanitization and homogenization of Times Square. The church has grown: from street-corner speeches decrying the soullessness of Disney to a thirty-four-member choir in matching red robes, an eight-member band (The Not Buying It Band) and a choir conductor and choreographer, savitri d, Talen’s wife and collaborator. Through the expansion, Reverend Billy’s message has stayed direct and deep-hitting: we’ve replaced personal interactions with over-consumption, and we’re losing our souls in the process. Not to mention destroying the planet.
The documentary truly drives home the sincerity of the Reverend’s mission, while striking fear as well as warmth into the heart of all who view its ever-pertinent message. Prepare thyself for the Shopocalypse! Broken into humorous chapters with witty animated title screens (“Baby Bling” has the requisite Madonna suckling Baby Jesus, the baby playing with an iPhone,) we follow the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir on a cross-country tour, singing in malls, preaching on early morning television shows, visiting colleges and singing Christmas carols in front of McMansions in Texas, in the thirty days leading up to Christmas, 2005. What’s important is that each liberal, upbeat, idealistic congregation shot is interspersed with hard numbers about America’s shopping problem. We meet American families and see their mountains of debt; there are interviews with Shopping Addiction therapists, religious leaders, American Depression survivors, a stressed-out human rights lawyer and a fantastically unconvincing Wal-Mart religious preacher, who can’t spout one good thing about the Wal-martization of America. In the middle of the film the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir bus gets into a pretty terrifying accident, and this only emboldens the choir as well as the audience — no force of man or act of God can slow their mission. The Reverend and his folk reach the holy grounds of Disneyland on Christmas Day, for one final action.
Upon first viewing, one would think it a film that preaches (pardon the pun) to the converted, but during a post-screening interview, director Rob VanAlkemade beamed as he informed us of conservative Christian groups across the country applauding the film and calling it a bastion of true Christian values. At the advance screening, we were also treated to a special performance, by the Stop Shopping Choir, of two original songs that they perform while on tour: the title track of “What Would Jesus Buy” and “Shopocalypse.” You may think Reverend Billy a genius or an asshole. Regardless, he’s a true New Yorker, one with a message for the masses that, if taken to heart, would result in a lot less post-holiday heartache and a lot less crap for the closets.