Marjoe (a derivation of Mary and Joseph) was called by God at the age of three. At four he performed a real marriage ceremony in front of the Paramount newsreel unit. Dressing the young curly-haired boy in his Little Lord Fauntleroy suit, his preaching parents marketed their "child of God." Marjoe's father called him a "preaching machine," and his mother sewed extra pockets in his pants to insure a more abundant financial return on his act. The young boy brought in an estimated three million dollars by the time he was a teenager. Then at the age of fourteen, he left the revival trail, had an affair with an older woman, and explored the lure of the counterculture.
This extraordinary documentary by Village Voice writers Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan pictures Marjoe back in the pulpit for an expose of the church-and-tent revival circuit. We crisscross the country with him from Los Angeles to Fort Worth, Detroit, and New York. The documentary cameras catch him whipping audiences into a spiritual frenzy. With Mick Jagger-like movements, Marjoe catwalks across the front of the stage sending sin shudders through the congregation. He pulls "Thank you Jesus!" and "Hallelujah!" out of his rhetorical hat like a consummate magician.
The God-fearing Christians in the audience are attentive as he shouts exhortations to repentance. Marjoe begins prophesying and scores of people speak in tongues. Women swoon under his touch; some fall to the floor, their bodies convulsing in a seizure (an aid puts a cloth over each "fallen woman" so the congregation doesn't see any indecent exposures). Others folkdance in the aisles, waving their hands in the air to signal their joy and affirm their beliefs. Music, shouts of conversion, and prayers of thanksgiving sweep over the congregation like the cacophony of a weird happening.
According to Marjoe, this is all part of the ritual and the robbery known as "the Jesus business." Many of the evangelists are outrageous hucksters. They sell glow-in-the-dark Jesuses and prayer handkerchiefs. Others feign serious use of their monies for mission work (Marjoe has dinner with one such wealthy Texas preacher and his wife). But no matter what the gimmick or the lie, the religious congregations hunger for an opportunity to purchase redemption, reaffirm their self-righteousness, reserve a seat on the Gospel train. The common bond that seems to unite these people is a hunger for certainty in a time of fluid change. They crave transcendent meaning and the reassurance of old-time religion. Marjoe and his cohorts (black as well as white preachers) are more than glad to give these insecure, lonely people an emotional experience with any gimmick that will do the trick. The worse the people feel, the more money they give. Almost all the prophets use buckets or pails to collect the offering. The green stuff fills the containers manna from Heaven! In one incident, another preacher says to Marjoe: "Boy, we got more money tonight than all last week."
No doubt many religious folk will be offended by this cinematic expose of the Jesus business. Others will nod their heads, having confirmed their beliefs regarding the moral bankruptcy of the entire church-and-tent revival circuit. The film's conclusion indicates that God is able to deliver Marjoe from this world of religious addiction. That in itself is a miracle. The unresolved question is whether those he preached to will ever see the light.
Also featured in this two-disc set is "Thoth" (2002), an Academy Award-winning documentary short profiling New York street personality Stephen Kaufmann, who performs exuberant one-man operas in an unknown tongue, accompanying himself on the violin.