Directed by Tina Gordon (“Little”; “Peeples”), the movie is set in the world of competitive praise choirs. The Amerie mash-up is our introduction to the reigning Champion Life, a megachurch whose team boasts silk purple costumes, professional arrangements and a talented hired front singer (gospel diva Koryn Hawthorne.) The scrappy underdog team — from an Atlanta church housed in a converted warehouse dubbed the Oil Factory — is no match.
At least, not until Sam (Chloe Bailey) reluctantly joins. Sam is an aspiring singer whose father sends her to live with her aunt, uncle and cousin — all Oil Factory devotees — after she is arrested while recording at a sketchy studio in her native Los Angeles.
For Gordon, “Praise This” offered another opportunity to work with Will Packer, the prolific producer behind “Girls Trip” and the “Think Like a Man” franchise. Packer showed Gordon the script after they finished collaborating on “Little,” and while Gordon thought the script was “sweet,” she told The Washington Post she wasn’t sure she wanted to make the faith-based film. But ever since writing the 2002 blockbuster “Drumline,” Gordon had been interested in helming another “music-centric project.”
“I felt like it would be a great opportunity if I could show this generation’s relationship to faith and show this generation’s challenges as it relates to faith in a light, funny way,” Gordon said.
One of the first things she did was change the setting of the movie from a nondescript small town to Atlanta. “I knew that it would raise the stakes musically because the music scene in Atlanta is so lively in terms of hip-hop, rap and R&B, “ she said, “but also the churches — from the megachurches to the independent sort of community driven churches to the storefront churches.”
Packer said he “immediately got it” when “Praise This” was first pitched to him. In some ways, the idea reminded him of “Stomp the Yard,” his first movie to hit number one at the box office. The 2007 film, which he produced alongside then-partner Rob Hardy, was set at a fictional historically Black school and immersed viewers in the stepping tradition of Black Greek organizations. Packer had also made a faith-based film, “The Gospel,” which was directed by Hardy and starred Idris Elba.
“I wanted to make a movie that felt like it could be authentic to people that don’t go to church, that don’t know what a praise team is,” Packer said. “That maybe — and this is true of a lot of us within the past few years — have lost their faith and maybe don’t have a connection with their own spirituality or with a higher power.”
That’s not to say “Praise This” is preachy. In fact, it’s a little edgy for traditional church folk — even leaving aside the gospel remix of “Savage” — but that’s by design. Gordon wanted to home in on a generation used to documenting their lives on social media, for better or worse.
Internet personality Druski plays a (mostly) ex pot dealer Aaron a.k.a. “Big Love,” who joins the Oil Factory’s praise team and finds a mentor in the church’s tattooed pastor (Tristan Mack Wilds), a former bad boy himself. Druski’s character, Aaron, was initially written as a suave, conventionally attractive guy. But the archetype didn’t quite fit Gordon’s vision for the Oil Factory’s praise team.
In the opening scene of the film — rated TV14 for “coarse language” — the Oil Factory gives a lackluster performance that draws boos from the crowd and establishes their rivalry with Champion Life. Big Love attempts to liven things up with a rap that goes off the spiritual rails. The character is one of several standouts in the film, but that doesn’t mean it was easy to direct the Instagram-famous comedian.
“When you cast a social media phenomenon, there’s an attention span that can be wandering,” Gordon said, laughing. “There’s a video [online] of how many times I say “Druski, Druski, Druski, Druski, Druski” on set.
Rapper and Atlanta native Quavo plays Ty, a popular rapper whom Sam is intent on meeting to further her music career. But Gordon wanted the character to subvert expectations. Instead of a celebrity coming in to lure Sam into the music industry, Ty urges her to stay grounded. Gordon said the Migos rapper got it. “We just had a conversation about that duality that exists where there’s bravado, there’s, you know, the flash of the performer, but there’s a human being that is not always allowed to show that side.”
Between the paint-by-the-numbers competition narrative and the musically influential setting, “Praise This” offered Gordon plenty of references to draw from — including “Pitch Perfect,” Spike Lee’s “School Daze” and Olivia Wilde’s “Booksmart,” which helped shape the close relationship between too-cool-for-school Sam and her cousin Jess (Anjelika Washington), a lovable oddball.
Washington (a standout presence in Netflix’s “Tall Girl” franchise) and Bailey establish a charming duo in early scenes — including the funny moment they align their disparate dancing styles while crashing a party at Ty’s house. Washington said she “fell in love” with the character, who reminded her of devout classmates from a stint in bible college before she became a full-time actor.
“She’s that ‘Jesus freak,’” Washington said of Jess. “I wanted to be able to showcase that, but also have the other side of her as well, which is so welcoming, accepting, open minded, nonjudgmental and also ambitious.”
Viewers go into “Praise This” knowing (loosely) how the rest of the movie will go: after locals and regionals, there’s the big competition with showstopping numbers and a surprise (but not really) victory. But it relies on its songs and performances as much as its drama to keep viewers entertained. Enter the “Savage” gospel remix, which replaces Beyoncé and Megan Thee Stallion’s sexually explicit lyrics with lines like: “I got blessings out the roof / Trust me He the truth.”
“We knew that this movie would literally and figuratively begin and end with the music, and we knew that our success with this film was going to be tied to the music,” Packer said.
The music team includes veteran producer-supervisor Derryck “Big Tank” Thornton and Harvey Mason Jr., the Recording Academy’s chief executive, who produced studio versions of the songs. Gospel singer Charles Jenkins was on hand to make sure the songs and choreography weren’t too inappropriate for the churchgoing crowd.
“At my core, I’m a comic and I will push boundaries to get people to laugh,” Gordon said. “But when you are balancing it with a faith based message, there’s a decorum that we kind of ride the intersection between being edgy or real, and [Jenkins] pulling me back and saying, ‘not that song to flip to gospel’ or ‘that joke is a bridge too far.’
Packer said the goal was to be real in the film’s portrayal of church life. “It’s not a film that’s got like a preponderance of cursing or sex or violence or anything like that. We didn’t need to do that,” he said. “But it is a movie that portrays real people who go out to the club and drink alcohol, you know, on a Saturday, but then have a desire to come to church on Sunday.”
In fact when Jess takes Sam to the Oil Factory for the first time, she points out that very crowd, joking that “it smells like D’usse and Black & Milds over there.”
“The point is to try to reach an audience that doesn’t sit in a church pew every Sunday,” Packer said, “and maybe hasn’t in a very long time. And maybe has never.”