For King & Country singer didn't want 'Unsung Hero' film to be 'glory project' about his family

Unsung Hero movie poster, 2023
Unsung Hero movie poster, 2023 | Lionsgate

The Smallbone family comprises some of the most prolific figures in the Christian music industry. Oldest sister, Rebecca Smallbone, known professionally as Rebecca St. James, is one of the genre's most popular female artists, while brothers Joel and Luke make up the five-time Grammy Award-winning duo For King and Country.

Despite their success, when bringing his family's story to the big screen, Joel Smallbone didn't want to make the film a "glory project."

"We weren't setting out to make a Hallmark film," the 39-year-old, who directed, co-wrote and stars in the film, told The Christian Post.

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"We set out to make it an adventure drama and an honor project for our parents, parenthood and motherhood. But we did not set out to make a glory project. That's very different; you can honor someone and still have a holistic understanding of who they are. ... When you make a glory project, you sort of chop up all rough, jagged edges of their story, and we didn't feel like that was the right thing to do."

"Unsung Hero," a movie from Kingdom Story Company and Lionsgate that hits theaters on April 26, largely follows the story of matriarch Helen Smallbone (Daisy Betts), a devoted mother of six with another along the way, who enjoyed a picturesque life in her homeland of Australia.

However, her life takes an unexpected turn when her husband, David (Joel Smallbone), a concert promoter, announces the family will relocate to America to pursue his dream career in the music industry.

After relocating halfway across the world to Nashville, Tennessee, David's carefully laid plans are shattered when he's told the job he'd transplanted his family for had been given to someone else.

Facing an unexpected future and financial difficulties, the Smallbone family relies on faith and the kindness of those around them — especially their local church community — to survive. 

"If it weren't for the local community, and more specifically, if it weren't for the local church, I don't think we'd still be in America," Smallbone said.

"I'm really proud to showcase that in the movie … people found out we didn't have any furniture and collected a bunch of furniture. That first Christmas, Santa Claus either didn't know where we lived or he couldn't give us gifts, and the local church helped Santa Claus give us more gifts than ever. … They gave us groceries when we didn't have any food. To me, that's the great beauty of what the local community and the local church is and should be."

Smallbone said playing his father on the big screen was like a "very expensive therapy session." The film depicts the struggles David Smallbone faces as he grapples with providing for his family, remaining a supportive spouse, and trusting in God's goodness as everything seems to be falling apart.

"When we first moved to the States, I was very young, as depicted in the film," Smallbone said. "I only saw it through this kind of adventure, childlike perspective. But there was something about diving into his story as an adult now, and I'm just a couple of years younger than he was when he actually moved, that transformed my whole vantage point.  … It's given me a whole different respect, empathy and love for him than I'd ever had before."

Smallbone said that navigating the delicate balance between honoring his parents' legacy and portraying their story with integrity was not without its challenges.

"I'm afraid," he added, "that if we didn't go as vulnerable and visceral with his story, men wouldn't connect with him the way that they should."

For the Smallbones, "Unsung Hero" was a family affair. David and Helen Smallbone weighed in on the script, the parents and each of the seven Smallbone siblings — including Rebecca St. James —  make cameo appearances, and Joel's wife, Moriah, and Luke Smallbone serve as executive producers of the film.

Though stressing his family is far from perfect, Smallbone said he's proud of how his parents instilled in their children a strong work ethic and a sense of unity within the family. He described them as having an "agricultural mindset," which is the idea of "you just get in there and do it."

"When Rebecca started out as an artist, dad needed cheap labor, and so we became the road crew," he said. "When we had financial issues, we'd rake leaves and mow lawns and clean houses."

"Jesus was very focused on the body of Christ and on the family of Christ, and I hope that, in a small, broken way, our family can be an example of what it looks like to be in a body where you're all moving and shifting and you're showing grace, you're leaving room for each other, but you're loving each other through it. Because I think that's that's the greatest way to live and the most Jesus Galilean way to live."

For contemporary Christian music lovers, "Unsung Hero" provides plenty of nods to artists of the late '80s and early '90s, including Stryper and Michael W. Smith (the film features a re-imagined version of "Place in the World" featuring For King and Country, along with Smith). Rebecca St. James' foray into the world of Christian music and the obstacles she faced are also shown. 

"We're such a legacy band of what Rebecca did. We sort of honed our craft under her tutelage as a musician," Smallbone said. 

When asked about the decision to retain the Smallbone surname while Rebecca opted for the St. James moniker, Smallbone admitted it was a matter of personal choice.

"It's a weird name, 'Smallbone,'" he said. "Time will tell whether this was this was a smart move or if it overly exposes us. … We've thought about carrying the St. James name with us because Rebecca was such a legacy."

"Luke and I just came to the place where, we've already got a moniker, 'For King and Country.' There's a little bit of safety inside the moniker, so we'll just keep it real and go with our birth last names."

The musician said he hopes his family's story serves as a reminder to the Body of Christ to care for those in need and honors his parents' unwavering faith, which he said is the cornerstone of their success, resilience and love for one another despite their flaws.

"We're not a perfect family. There is no perfect family. We are not trying to portray a perfect family in this movie, and we're not trying to sing about it in music," Smallbone said.

"We're going into a lot of churches promoting the movie right now," he added. "We want to be a part of encouraging those flavors of the local churches to continue to come out into their communities because communities need it more than ever, families need it more than ever. They need a safe place where they're not going to feel judged and where people can pour into them."

"Unsung Hero" also stars Candace Cameron-Bure, Hilary Scott, Lucas Black and Kirrilee Berger. 

Leah M. Klett is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at:

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