When a documentary opens with the story of a young boy coming home from a friend’s house greeted by his mother who then rains down blows on her son like a boxer, you’re in for a ride.
This is the life and times of Russ Taff.
Nope, I’d never heard of him either. A contemporary Christian, gospel and southern gospel singer who rose to fame in the 80s, only to slowly drown his success by swimming in a bottle. A lot of bottles. All of this recounted in sometimes horrific detail in the documentary Russ Taff: I Still Believe.
Apparently Russ Taff is a big deal. Like Elvis big. (I enjoy Christian music far more today than back then but the closest I came to CCM was Stryper – a band I will one day find time to dive into.) The multi Grammy and Dove award winning singer got his start with the Imperials in the mid-70s before moving on as a solo artist and taking the Christian music world by storm. Despite not knowing Taff or his music, the Russ Taff: I Still Believe documentary I watched on Amazon Prime showed high ratings plus I’m a sucker for redemption stories. Based on the preview alone, you knew things got real dark before Taff finally found the light.
For those not looking to be preached at, not to worry. Of course, Taff’s Christian faith comes front and center, he is after all, a Christian Contemporary Music artist but his juggling of keeping it real on stage while hiding his secret turns into a pretty fascinating look at alcoholism, its effects on the individual, their family and those in the inner circle.
Russ Taff: I Still Believe Review
Amy Grant, Michael Tait of DC Talk, Steven Curtis Chapman, Michael W. Smith, and Bart Millard of MercyMe, among others, discuss their interactions with Taff and help move the story along. But the big reveals come from Taff and his wife Tori Taff who have no problem airing their dirty laundry which all centers around Russ Taff’s abusive childhood then discovering the temporary healing effects of alcohol which eventually leads to a downward spiral of massive guilt and shame, embarrassment and further suppressing those childhood traumas that led him to drink.
Taff grew up with an abusive alcoholic Pentecostal father who preached on Saturdays, prayed for the sick on Sundays and drank himself silly during the week, keeping his wife and kids on edge as they had no idea what personality would emerge on any given day. A stick of dynamite put under the house that exploded, as Taff described. He endured covert incest from his mother as she used Taff like a spouse by pouring out her feelings and discussing her sex life to him, only to backhand Taff across the face when he dared suggest she leave his father.
The alcohol, Taff discovered one day when he opened a Heineken, mostly on a whim that was sitting in the refrigerator, silenced all the voices in his head and made him feel normal. Eventually, the three beers he started with became an all-day affair and even relieved morning hangovers.
Outside of Christian circles, no doubt Taff would have been a huge music star in the 80s. His adult contemporary sound ranged from almost Bee Gees like disco to Bon Jovi rock and even a country album that was never released. His soulful voice and charming good looks hampered only because of the Christian lyrics ignored by the mainstream. Christian bands often have “a tell” in that you can identify them pretty quick. But Taff looked and his music sounded like every other Billboard chart topping artist of the day and no one would be the wiser if not for the lyrics.
Taff eventually got help, and as his wife Tori recounts, you never knew how long it lasted. He was dry for years until his father died which brought to surface all the childhood pain. He relapsed only to get back on the wagon then his mother died starting the cycle over, worse seemingly every time. Finally, during one live music celebration, Taff took to the stage drunk, looking bloated and a bit out of sorts but powered through his part before getting a tap on the shoulder and removed – all of this played on video in real time as Taff and other witnesses relayed the story.
Taff eventually checks himself in to an exclusive rehab facility in New Mexico but by now Tori has made the decision to move on. Taff gets clean and narrates another story, also captured on camera, of him visiting a friend’s father dying of cancer who remarkably looks like Taff’s father. This man asks Taff to pray for him, taking the musician by surprise and once he finishes, Taff asks the dying patient to pray for him. What ensues can only be described as a sudden miraculous healing.
Long story short, we all long for a loving father who encourages us, tells us he’s proud and helps lift us up rather than tear us down. Taff did not have this growing up but his true story of redemption while never actually straying from his faith in God and thinking he could hide a secret that he knew was killing him, not just physically, offers a unique tale of forgiveness and rising from the childhood ashes of abuse.
Russ Taff: I Still Believe was released in 2018 and moves along at a brisk hour and 45 minutes. In classic documentary format, the film covers his childhood through adulthood while bringing in numerous other voices to provide context and eye witness. Only a few times I got lost in the timeline as the jump from one event to the corresponding next left me scratching my head for a second but ultimately Russ Taff: I Still Believe delivers a remarkable narrative and director Rick Altizer does a great job of storytelling and bridging all the accounts of Taff’s life into a cohesive and enjoyable movie.