GRAMMY Award-winning Joel Smallbone (for KING + COUNTRY) traces the faithfulness of God and the determination of his parents in his new passion project, “Unsung Hero,” released this week from Kingdom Story Company. The longtime passion project, where Smallbone finds himself literally in his father’s shoes (“I’ve dubbed it a very expensive therapy session”), tells his family’s story as they leave their home of Australia in hopes of a new life in America.

Joel Smallbone stars as David Smallbone in ‘Unsung Hero.’ Image courtesy of Lionsgate.

“I’ve been telling our family’s story since the beginning of the band,” Smallbone explains. “We sort of used it as a pay-it-forward moment to the audience to go ‘Hey, if it wasn’t for people like yourself, we wouldn’t be in this country anymore’.”

As Joel and his brother Luke continued sharing, some came forward to urge them to document it either in book or movie form. With a heart for drama and theatrics, Smallbone and co-writer/co-director Richard L. Ramsey started working on the screenplay in the fall of 2020. Soon, producers and Kingdom Story Company came on board, along with an impressive cast, including Daisy Betts playing David’s wife Helen, Lucas Black and Candace Cameron Buré as a couple who befriend the Smallbones, Terry O’Quinn as Grandpa James, and Kirrilee Berger as the brothers’ sister Rebecca St. James, who first broke through in the Christian music industry in the early 90’s.

Like previous Kingdom Story Company releases, the film has roots and touches with the Nashville contemporary Christian music scene. Music pioneer and producer Eddie DeGarmo (portrayed by Joshua Jackson) plays a key role as David’s friend and employer, and there are also portrayals of Amy Grant, Stryper, and Carman. As a musical tie-in, the official “Inspired By” includes reworked versions of classic songs such as “Place in This World” featuring Michael W. Smith, “Lead Me On” featuring Amy Grant, and “To Hell with the Devil (Rise)” featuring Stryper and Lecrae.

“One of our earliest memories is sitting in front of a record player holding a vinyl 45 of Stryper’s ‘The Yellow & Black Attack’ cover,” Smallbone says. “This song was a fun one to reinvent and think through as a duo – and Lecrae, performing what we believe is one of his greatest raps yet; coupled with Michael Sweet reinventing his iconic guitar solo at the end.”

Smallbone admits there’s a balance in telling his family’s personal story, warts and all. David loses faith after he continues to encounter unsurmountable odds in his quest to provide for his family, while Helen remains resilient: “We certainly wanted it to be an honor project to family, but we did not want it to be a glory project for our family,” he says. “To honor someone well, you want to tell all sides of the story. He’s sort of a very conflicted character throughout the whole film. It was a very conflicting time in his life.”

At the same time, David and Helen were also on hand to add minor notes that helped keep the story authentic to what really happened, since Joel’s perspective could differ at certain points.

“I think Mum and Dad were really gracious in giving us the room to push and pull on the story,” he explains. “It is very accurate, sort of remarkably accurate, as far as true stories and film a concern. But there were a couple of times we sent them the scripts as we were developing it, when we go to their place, and they were certainly a couple of comments and ideas and thoughts (they offered).”

As far as the final confirmation, when the real David watched his son’s portrayal and direction in the final film, the verdict was positive. Joel said David, who became the film’s biggest champion, paid him the biggest compliment.

“He said you externalized visually what all that I was internalizing emotionally,” he says. “I took a lot of pride in the fact that I was able to present to the audience what he was really going through.”

More than telling his family’s story, however, Smallbone’s highest hope is that the story points people to the transforming power of the “greatest storyteller who ever lived.”

“Jesus’ medium of communication was stories, and if it’s good enough for Him, it’s good enough for us,” he says.

“Unsung Hero,” starring Daisy Betts, Joel Smallbone, Kirrilee Berger, Jonathan Jackson, Lucas Black, with Candace Cameron Bure, and Terry O’Quinn, releases April 26 from Kingdom Story Company and Lionsgate Studios.

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