"He just happens to be an alcoholic."
Russ Taff: I Still Believe
Russ Taff's gritty, exultant baritone voice could have taken him any number or places professionally. Not only because he's the son of a Pentecostal preacher, his voice was made for a career in Southern gospel and contemporary Christian music. The soulful power of his instrument is such that it steered the Southern gospel group that brought him to wide public attention, The Imperials, into the wider contempo' Christian marketplace.
Though Taff remains vocally potent, and retains enough public appreciation to have recently filled his and his wife's yard with an audience for a porch-side acoustic performance, Russ Taff: I Still Believe is at least much about his personal struggle as it is the artistry that netted him numerous Grammy and Dove trophies. Go figure that, among the celebrity testimonials, singing comedian Mark Lowry early on drops the stinger of a punchline that informs the heart of the movie: "He just happens to be an alcoholic."
Taff's addiction remained well hidden throughout much of his time in the cCm spotlight. But so did the processing of the maladjusted feelings and inadequacies he accumulated growing up with a dad suffering the same addiction, often to violent ends on his dad's part and his mother's confessions that really shouldn't be shared with a child.
Taff at first believed the emotional ease he felt after downing three Heinekens he found in a hotel fridge was a blessing from on high. Soon enough, what he thought was a blessing would reveal itself as a curse to his career and, more importantly, a trial for his family.
With that in mind, his wife Tori plays as pivotal a role in I Still Believe and her husband's life as does the man himself. Living with her husband's affliction means she was a long-suffering pawn subject to denials and broken promises. The nigh brutal honesty she exhibits in her interview segments in front of the camera directed by Rick Altizer (yes, the erstwhile underrated power pop singer/guitarist who made some strides in the Christian and general markets in the late '90's and early '00's) probably came off even tougher when confronting her other half. Here she portrays herself as a lady who loves her life partner enough to have withstood all she did in their marital relationship, but took only so much before an intervention became necessary. For their two daughters' part, one was so traumatized by living through the turmoil of her dad's descent, the other sounds philosophical about the hellishness of life with an alcoholic parent, though the situation doubtless exacted an equally profound toll on her as it did her sibling.
The downward trek of Taff's career became evident during the recording of a television special where another singing comic, Chonda Pierce, had the presence of mind and grace to take up the slack on his erratic behavior during their on-stage interaction. The immediate and extended prayer support of his fellow performers offers proof that, however fraught with spiritual and business foolishness gospel/contempo' Christian music may have been then and certainly is now, there remains a heart for the well being of its own, at least.
The intervention Mrs. Taff organized did some temporary good for her Russ, but the definitive turning point in came in a most unexpected situation. After his solo career waned, Taff became a member of Southern gospel songwriter/impresario Bill Gaither's Gaither Vocal Band at the same time Lowry was a member. The latter's pastor's father requested that Taff come by to serenade and pray for him during a hospital stay in his waning days.
As it would happen, the man in the hospital bed was the spitting image of Taff's now late paterfamilias. In a move that surprised even himself, caught movingly on video, the singer asked the patient for prayer, too. The Lord used that interaction to minister a flood of healing to the oft-besotted Taff.
He confesses to making a monthly appearance at an Alcoholics Anonymous meting in order to stay humble and keep his deliverance fresh in his mind. If his following AA protocol of declaring "I'm an...," jibing with Lowry's opening identification of his former band mate as an alcoholic in the present tense, doesn't square with 1 Corinthians 6: 9-11's "such were some of you," one might hope that Believe's titular character is nevertheless secure in Christ and that his musical funnyman friend can see that his friend's reliance on self-medication is a thing of the past. May that remain the case.
Because this documentary is about a fantastic vocalist, there is, fortunately, plenty of music here as well. For the twenty or so of us gathered at the big screen one-night showing of Believe (here's believing a home video release will appear around the time of Russ and Tori's book of the same name drops in January 2019), it was a nostalgia fest in miniature of some of the best cCm of the '70's-'90's, though the editing never allows a single song to play in its entirety; how about a soundtrack album in tandem with the DVD/BluRay? And how about including on it a track or a few from the unreleased second Warner Brothers Records album he recorded during his brief mid-'90's foray into commercial radio country music; his first such album sounds positively traditional compared to most of the genre's solo male hit-makers nowadays.
Speaking of Taff's under promoted stint in country, it would he been a hoot had Altizer included a bit of his subject's funny song during one of the music's award shows about how he wanted a piece of the hardware being handed out that night. Perhaps it couldn't be licensed? A song that definitely wasn't available, alas, at least at a price the producers could afford, is Taff's remake of The Call's song from which the movie derives its name. Toward the end of its credits, notation is made that the estate of the band's late singer/songwriter, Michael Been, wouldn't allow the use of Taff's rendition. However oblique Been could be about his own faith, it's a shame his survivors wouldn't allow use of so apt a song for this story of gracious redemption.
-Jamie Lee Rake