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Volume 77, Number 24 | November 14 - 20, 2007

Photo coutesy of Fred Askew

Reverend Billy, preparing for one of his infamous retail interventions outside a Victoria’s Secret in a scene from the documentary, “What Would Jesus Buy?”

Reverend Billy’s traveling salvation show
New documentary explores the counterfeit cleric’s calling

What Would Jesus Buy?
A documentary directed by Rob Van Alkemade
Produced by Morgan Spurlock
Opens Friday
Cinema Village
22 East 12th Street
(646.437.4202; wwjbmovie.com)


If you want to give someone you love a present this holiday season, take them to see “What Would Jesus Buy?” The new documentary from producer Morgan Spurlock, of “Super Size Me” fame, makes the most compelling case for consumption reduction I’ve seen since my last MasterCard statement.

“WWJB” is the true-ish story of Reverend Billy, a pompadoured preacher who travels the United States in a biodiesel bus packed with red-robed disciples, spreading the message of “stop shopping” to all who will listen (and a few who won’t). He makes a persuasive — and urgent — case. According to the filmmakers, Americans spent $455 billion during the Holidays last year and our combined credit card debt now exceeds $2.4 trillion. (Full disclosure: I’m responsible for approximately $35,000 of that. And counting.)

Reverend Billy is the altar ego of actor and activist Bill Talen, who created the character on the San Francisco stage more than a decade ago. Like a modern “Meet John Doe,” Talen’s comic creation morphed into a very real anti-corporate gadfly on the streets and in the chain stores of New York City. His “retail interventions,” cash register “exorcisms” and frequent run-ins with the NYPD have made him a folk hero in an increasingly folk-free city.

The film, ably directed by Rob Van Alkemade, is an old fashioned road comedy, with Talen setting off on a journey across a country that is desperately in need of saving — and savings. He is accompanied by his wife Savitri and the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir, a diverse collection of talented singers and musicians who appear to have chugged Reverend Billy’s homemade Kool-Aid by the gallon. Their mission begins at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery and takes them through small town tent revivals, an unwelcome appearance at the Mall of America, an exorcism of Wal-Mart’s corporate headquarters and, finally, Christmas Day at Disneyland. Along the way there are arrests (of course), accidents, unplanned hospital stays and the largest collection of confused law enforcement officers since Mack Sennett decommissioned the Keystone Cops.

Peppered throughout the narrative are ominously funny interviews with actual clergymen, shopping addiction experts, debt-ridden parents, over-gifted children and the mall workers who handle thousands of dollars each day for a minimum wage. When asked the rhetorical question of the film’s title, a salesperson at a video game store deadpans, “He’d probably buy a Wii. Or an Xbox 360 if there weren’t any Wii’s available.” It’s nice to know that the Lord doesn’t have any more pull at GameStop than we do, even on His birthday.

Hilarious interstitial animations, done in the stop-motion style of Terry Gilliam’s work from “Monty Python,” keep the pace fast and funny, and the co-opting of the unmistakable Disney typeface would make even Grumpy smile. All of this creative garnish bears the unmistakable satiric imprint of producer Spurlock, who’s near-suicide by supersizing resulted in one of the most watchable documentaries of recent years. A tip of the mesh trucker cap must be offered also to Michael Moore, whose anti-establishment classic “Roger and Me” informs every frame of this film.

But the real star here is Talen, who has all the Good Book-thumping charisma of the equally fraudulent clergyman Marjoe Gortner, star of the seminal 1972 Oscar-winning documentary “Marjoe.” Unlike the cynical Gortner, who used his powers of prayer in the service of Mammon, Talen appears to have truly embraced his calling/act. And his willingness to reveal his failings, slip-ups and frustration at missed opportunities create a nuanced portrait of a performer so consumed by his role that he might end up buried in his white clerical collar, as Bela Lugosi was in his black Dracula cape.

Towards the end of the film, Talen and his wife (the real brains of the organization) collapse on a motel bed in Bentonville, Arkansas after a comically impotent attack on the heavily guarded Wal-Mart H.Q.

“I need for what we do to have an impact on someone soon.” she sighs.

For my money — or at least what’s left of it — soon is now.

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