Review: 'Voices Of Fire'

Post by: Rick Ellis 13 November, 2020

I don't know the definition of "Grace" is, but I know what it feels like to receive it.

Maybe eight years ago, I was at the lowest point of my life. I had been laid off three times in less than two years and there wasn't one aspect of my life that wasn't a dumpster fire. My marriage was collapsing under the weight of all the stress and I had a young autistic son who needed help I couldn't give him. I was lost and feeling simultaneously as if I were carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders while also being a failure and a fraud. One night I was driving home, dreading seeing my wife's disappointed face. And as I was driving, I realized I had to go to the bathroom and when I noticed some people walking into a small church, I stopped to use their facilities. 

It turned out the people were there for a meeting they jokingly called the "Broken Person's Club." It was set up essentially like an AA meeting. A group of people sitting in a circle talking about their lives, their hopes, their failures. Some of the group did have addiction problems, but there was also an elderly woman who was just lonely and a former pastor at the church who had lost his faith when his wife died following a long bout with cancer. All of them were "broken" in some way and they gathered twice a week for some fellowship, sharing of stories and unconditional support of each other. They convinced me to stay and I soon became a regular.

I wasn't a religious person then and I still am not. But those meetings saved me. Being able to talk about my fears, sharing the dark places knowing that there was no judgement gave me the space and strength to work everything out. It was brutally difficult. But as I write this I have never been happier. I have a strong marriage, a wonderful son and I make a good living doing work that matters to me. And I wouldn't be here without those meetings that I was almost too afraid to try. I found Grace, even if I can't quite describe what it is.

That feeling of Grace is also the underpinning of the new Netflix series Voices Of Fire, which premieres on Friday, November 20th. In a year where it can feel as if all of the joy has been sucked out of the world, this six-episode series is a palate cleanser for your soul.

At first glance the premise of Voices Of Fire sounds a bit like a Gospel-oriented American Idol rip-off. Bishop Ezekiel Williams - the uncle of Pharrell Williams - has assembled a group of the gospel heavyweights in the Hampton Roads area and hopes to put together what he dreams will be one of the best gospel choirs in the country. And they'll do it by mixing singers who have grown up in the church with people who don't know gospel music, but have the voice and personality to be part of a larger plan.

More than 3,000 people entered to be part of the choir and several hundred were brought in for auditions. And as these hopefuls sing for their chance, it's quickly apparent that this show isn't an American Idol clone. While that show can often seem wrapped up in the celebrity of the judges and the ambition of all of those Kelly Clarkson wannabes, the hopeful participants of Voices Of Fire aren't expecting to become stars by participating. They're looking for a way to find musical redemption, an opportunity to find themselves in a larger purpose. Early on, one singer begins haltingly singing and as she does tears begin streaming down her face. And that emotion sets the stage for a series of personal stories that frame the audition process and the preparation for the choir's public debut at a large theater.

One singer was once in a R&B boy's group that collapsed due to drug use by some of the members. A 15-year-old struggles to learn songs, hampered by the fact that she has lost 50 percent of her hearing. Another man has hands that are partially paralyzed after an accident that nearly ended his life. There are singers who struggle with social anxiety and a lack of support and confidence. Nearly everyone highlighted in the series is broken in some way, but the hard work balanced with unconditional support transforms each of them in ways they never saw coming.

The season ends with a concert and even at that point there are unexpected highlights and powerful emotions that will lift you up and leave your soul at peace. 

Voices Of Fire is a gospel show, but it isn't infused with modern-day religion or politics. If you believe, you'll see the series in a way that will reaffirm your belief that God changes lives on a daily basis. And if you don't believe or have non-Christian beliefs, you'll be lifted up by the unbridled joy that is interwoven into nearly every scene of the show.

While Voices Of Fire probably wouldn't have happened without the presence of Pharrell Williams, the show wisely uses him very sparingly. He makes a brief appearance during the audition phase and doesn't return until the night of the big concert. And that hands-off approach works for the show. His continued presence would have ended up making the show about him and his stardom. In small doses, he becomes a supporter and mentor rather than a celebrity judge.

In case you can't tell by this point, I absolutely loved Voices Of Fire. Its optimism and community is just the type of role model we could all use right now. My only complaint is that I would have loved to have seen the entire concert. So maybe it's time for a "bonus episode," Netflix.

Voices Of Fire premieres Friday, November 20th, 2020 on Netflix.

Last modified on Friday, 13 November 2020 21:46