Consumerism is not inherently funny, but Rev. Billy (a.k.a William Talen), a pompadoured New York City performance artist and anti-shopping activist who gives mock sermons in malls, parking lots and city parks, is. Wearing his signature Southern-preacher-meets-Roman-Catholic-priest get-up and backed by his Stop Shopping Gospel Choir and Not Buying It Band, Talen treats unsuspecting crowds nationwide to rousing performances that often end with him being escorted off the premises in handcuffs and thrown in a paddywagon.
Rev. Billy, his cohorts, and his many anti-consumer antics are the subject of the new documentary What Would Jesus Buy?. Talen has some theatrical chops—he founded and performed at the San Francisco avant-garde theater Life on the Water. But Talen’s acting skills aren’t what makes What Would Jesus Buy? work; rather it’s his consistent perseverance to keep the show going that makes the film as compelling as it is entertaining.
I purposely didn’t read any promotional materials or reviews of the movie before going. I just showed up, expecting an earnest exposé of 21st century consumerism. I was way off. What I got was a road-trip movie about the Rev. Billy and his choir, a motley crew of progressives (and now a nonprofit organization) that travel from the country’s Wal-Mart parking lots and Starbucks lounges to the front stoops of suburban homes, and even to Disneyland, trying all the while to convince people to “back away from the product,” and stop shopping.
The choir’s songs, hymns and carols are silly and sarcastic, but surprisingly critical and not half bad, as far as lyrics go. In the song “Pushback!,” Rev. Billy sings, “If you’re rich your view is scenic. Pushback! If you’re poor you better dream it. Pushback!” In the song “Shopocalypse,” he sings, “Homogenizing in this big box/Defend what’s left, save the small shops/Chain stores give us migraines/Where is Ginsberg?/Where is Coltrane?”
In one scene, a suburban family opens their front door expecting real Christmas carols, only to hear spoofs on timeless classics from Billy and the choir. The perplexed, “I think this is making me uncomfortable” look that washes over their faces is priceless. The choir’s thumping performances throughout the film surge with real energy, and Rev. Billy’s repeated efforts to exorcise people’s “consumer demons” surprisingly does not get old.
A Q&A with Rev. Billy and two other members of the group after the screening I saw was an added bonus: Turns out the boisterous performer can turn off the act and talk rationally with folks about fighting the urge to buy unnecessary crap. In real life, his convictions are the same, just calmer and without the Southern accent. When asked about being raised in a religious family, he told the crowd, “I had a shrink tell me once that when I’m yelling about Mickey Mouse and Disneyland, I’m really yelling at my father.” He then shrugged and paused for a punchline, but it was not necessary. The crowd was already laughing. Actually, they hadn’t stopped since the movie ended. Who said railing against consumerism can’t be fun?
The film debuted in March at the South By Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas, and went into wide release earlier this month.