Review: Sons of Provo (B)

Sons of ProvoGood satire mixes elements of truth with humorous exaggeration — it’s fake, but it’s not that fake.

Sons of Provo is a fairly lightweight addition to the ranks of LDS cinema, but certainly has its moments.

Inspired most obviously by This is Spinal Tap, Sons of Provo cleverly satirizes boy-bands within the context of LDS culture — and isn’t that far removed from what an actual LDS boy-band would sound like.

The members of the boy-band “Everclean” — who unironically have a large poster of Donny & Marie Osmond sitting next to a poster of Ozzy Osborne — are sincere about wanting to be spiritual, yet hip.  Righteous, yet ‘fly’.  Their lyrics (written by the actors themselves) are both clever and insipid — containing basic gospel platitudes wrapped in modern-day Gen X language, driven by a modern techno beat.   It’s funny…yet not that different than many of the EFY ‘songs’ you hear in real life which contain preachy Sunday-School lyrics over rudimentary and unimaginative accompaniments.

The best parts of Sons of Provo are, in fact, when “Everclean” are performing their songs with their energetic (albeit amateurish) choreography and witty lyrics.  From subtle comments on the speed of LDS courtships (“The two weeks we’ve been together…have been the best of my life!“) to pleas for girls to “Wait For Me” while they serve a mission, the songs are silly, yet catchy, and can leave you smiling and tapping your foot even if you’ll still skip buying the soundtrack.

Outside of the musical numbers, the humor is more hit-and-miss as the band rises to the top (such as it is) of the Utah Valley musical scene, first with a tour manager who spouts head-scratching nuggets of wisdom (“There’s no ‘me’ in ‘team’”) and later replaced by a girl whose primary reason for getting the job seems to be “because she has her own car”.

The biggest danger of ‘mockumentary’-style movies, where much of the dialogue is improvised, is a lack of focus — wasting time on scenes that don’t go anywhere.  Sons of Provo suffers from this a little, as many of the non-singing scenes are underdeveloped (or don’t have much to offer in the first place).  Danny’s Buddhist influences, Kirby’s relationship with his roommates, and the expert on the ‘history of boy-bands’ — to name a few — may have had some comic potential but didn’t amount to much in the end.

The quality of music seems to go downhill, too — perhaps deliberately — as “Everclean” soon finds themselves trying (and failing) to add rap to their repertoir in an effort to gain ‘street cred’.  (This leaves one young woman in the audience in tears, asking her young women’s leader to come take her away from that ‘bad place’.   The attempt at being more ‘urban’ brought to mind Homer Simpson’s attempt at rapping to advertise his snow plow business [Lisa: “Promise me you’ll never do that again…”])

Regrettably, the movie’s biggest failing is lack of ambition, especially at the end.  There are a number of ways Sons of Provo could have kept up comic momentum, while simultaneously including more edgy satire that tackled more serious issues.  What happens when three guys who base their music on being righteous and clean get a little bit of fame and fortune and encounter many of the unrighteous influences that such things inevitably bring.  (More ‘open-minded’ groupies, perhaps?  “Oh…I love the Lord…and your music…SO…MUCH!  Kiss me!“)  What happens when advertising and righteous living mix?  When your product IS righteousness in a sense, how do you market it to other people without being insincere and hypocritical?  What happens when you’re tempted to lower your standards to increase (or simply maintain) your audience?

The direction taken by Sons of Provo at the end — focusing shallowly on the interpersonal conflicts of the band members — is a disappointment, only because I think there was so much more potential material to play with.  Sons of Provo is pleasant and witty as it is, but perhaps next time, Will Swenson, Kirby Heyborne and the rest can dig a little deeper to create a movie that’s both entertaining AND insightful — something that will leave audiences talking afterwards about the deeper issues at play, instead of merely humming “Sweet Spirit” or “Word of Wizzum” to themselves…

Final Grade: B

Analysis and Other Comments:

Any time the majority population in an area is comprised of one relatively homogenous demographic (like Mormons in Utah Valley), it can lead to some interesting cultural changes.  Being the majority means LDS religious culture tends to intrude in the business sector in a number of ways — not because the Church forces its way in, but because (naturally) businesses will take into account the demographic composition when making business decisions.  (Utah Valley, for example, is one of the only places on Earth where businesses will actually advertise that they are closed on Sundays…)

Many business ideas (such as LDS bookstores or edited video rentals) are obvious choices based on the population, and frequently it’s not Church members who open them, but rather non-members who understand the basic tenet of successful businesses:  find what your customers want and give it to them.

The dark side of doing business in Utah Valley — including entertainment, which is still a business when you get down to it — comes from the facades that are put on to attract those customers in the first place.

One of my pet peeves is LDS-targeted advertising — in between General Conference sessions, for example — where “family values”, and “Choosing The Right” become just another advertising pitch to market products to you.  LDS ads often are deliberately designed to give the impression that all good, temple-worthy Saints should naturally be buying this or that product.  If you don’t, obviously you don’t really love the Lord or your family.

Secular businesses are relatively honest about just wanting your money.  LDS-owned or LDS-oriented businesses often blend in spirituality and morals while still, fundamentally, also just wanting your money.   The dangers when spirituality and business meet is that the Holy Spirit becomes just another marketing tool — where appeals to your spiritual side are just to make the sale.  Does that person really care about your spiritual growth, or is it just a cynical attempt to pry cash from your wallet?

The other difficulty comes when spiritual things are made into packagable and saleable commodities (take the “Passion of the Christ” videogame, for example…or imagine Twelve Apostle action figures)  It’s bad enough when art is passionlessly exploited by large corporations — it’s quite another when spiritual stories and principles are turned into mass-produced products to sell to Latter-Day Saints.  How long does it take before overexposure and frivolity start to negate the value of spiritual things?

Standards also come into play when spirituality and business mix.  If a business is designed to attract LDS customers — take, for example, LDS musicians — personal beliefs and behavior can become relevant to your income.  Your average Top 40 singer or nationally known book author probably won’t hurt his/her bottom line if he/she appears drunk at a social event one day, as most people will mentally separate artistic quality with personal behavior.

If your primary customer base is LDS, though?  Then, you’re in trouble…   Objectively, you can argue — as many do with musicians or athletes who have legal or moral issues — that the talent on the field (or on the CD) has nothing to do with any problematic behavior away from it.  However, LDS culture is different — circumstancial evidence shows Latter-Day Saints *will* judge the work of a writer or musician by their personal life and actions.

What happens, then, if a member of a LDS music group feels compelled to whitewash certain personal habits in his own life when he/she feels (correctly) that his audience won’t accept the music if he/she doesn’t outwardly maintain certain standards?  Would competing businesses resist the urge to ‘mud-throw’ — advertising their competitors moral failings in an effort to attract more business like it was a political campaign?  When your business model is based on spiritual matters and morality, can you avoid having your own spirituality and morality used to judge the quality of your product, even if your product is just T-shirts or coffee mugs?

This is a rich area for discussion that was brought to mind by Sons of Provo even though the movie itself did not address any of these issues directly.   If LDS culture affects our secular lives as well as our activities on Sundays, how can businesses in high-LDS areas not use LDS culture as the fundamental selling point for attracting customers?  How does this method of advertising play off of the sacred things of the Church — either using spirituality as an ‘in’ to make the sale, or turn spiritual things into money-making tools?   What religious-themed products can be considered ‘appropriate’ and which cross the line?  (I’m thinking a “Boyd K. Packer action figure” may be too much…)  Can the religious world interact successfully with the secular world without some significant consequences down the line?  There’s a compelling movie in there somewhere for any LDS writer / director willing to take the plunge.