Sort of an Elmer Gantry for the counterculture era, this brief and fast-moving melodrama concerns a low-rent schemer who stumbles into a lucrative career as a rock-and-roll preacher performing under the name “Matthew, Son of Jesus.” The movie has a high kitsch factor, with 1950s/1960s teen idol Fabian Forte playing the starring role and DJ/actor Casey Kasem in the supporting cast. Yet because writer-director Burt Topper goes balls-out while portraying the lead character’s vices (everything from heroin to hookers), the picture has a pulpy sort of integrity. Superficiality ultimately keeps the piece mired in mediocrity, but Soul Hustler is enjoyable as what could perhaps be termed “thoughtful trash.”
In the beginning, wandering longhair Matthew Crowe (Forte) bums around the country, bonding with fellow vagabond Brian Spencer (Larry Bishop) even as Matthew cultivates his gifts for bullshit and music. Crashing a tent-revival meeting overseen by middle-aged preacher Evin Calder (Tony Russel), Matthew fleeces the faithful for donations, thereby discovering his destiny. Under Evin’s tutelage, Matthew polishes his act, eventually donning saintly white robes and growing a scruffy beard so he can front a hot band and praise “my father, Jesus Christ.” Offstage, Matthew becomes a diva rock star, demanding private jets and other perks even as he indulges himself with drugs and women. Lurid aspects enter the story when Matthew’s drug use causes recovering addict Brian to relapse, when Matthew clashes over strategy with the avaricious Evin, and when sexy Helena (Nai Bonet) tries to wean Matthew off drugs with the promise of a healthy relationship. High-strung promoter Birnie, played by Kasem with a fierce salt-and-pepper perm, lingers around the periphery of Matthew’s story, booking steadily more important gigs until a climactic concert at the famed Forum in Los Angeles.
Although none of the original tunes in the movie is especially memorable, some of the music has a tasty fuzzy-guitar Blood Sweat & Tears quality, which suits the milieu and the time; concurrently, Fabian’s obvious comfort onstage sells the illusion of Matthew as a charismatic star. Nonetheless, the filmmaking itself is perfunctory, and the story is predictable even though the rise-fall-rise arc is always somewhat satisfying because it parallels the normal cycles of real rock-star lives. No one should sample Soul Hustler expecting a deep movie full of surprises. Taken for the sensationalized cheapie that it is, however, Soul Hustler is an effective expression of the demons that plague a self-destructive and self-loathing hypocrite.
Soul Hustler: FUNKY