Saturday, January 10, 2015

Burning Ember: The Steve Bell Journey


“Make way for Mr. Bell, please.” Isn’t that Bob Bennett carrying his luggage?

Burning Ember: The Steve Bell Journey – A Feature Documentary DVD
Publisher: Refuge 31 Films
Length: 97 minutes plus a bonus CD containing 14 songs spanning Bell’s career

“How did they not make it? What didn’t he do?” Immediately these questions are raised in Burning Ember: The Steve Bell Journey – A Feature Documentary.

They have been asked before in relation to other artists who, like Bell, have not had a commercial breakthrough in the US. Cliff Richard has sold more than 250 million records worldwide, but in this country his name is not a household word. American musician Sixto Rodriguez, the subject of the documentary Searching for Sugar Man, achieved rock star status in South Africa but has sold comparatively few albums in the US.

Steve Bell, a native of Canada, is among the best-known Christian artists in that country and holds numerous awards. Yet, despite widespread critical acclaim he is little know here. 

This Refuge 31 Films DVD explores why that might be, tracing his career from the early days of singing and performing with his family to the present day.

The producers follow Bell as he tours through the US, faithfully performing to small crowds, whereas artists of seemingly lesser talent play for thousands.

Camera shots of set-up and take-down frame brief concert clips that include not only songs but also dialogue. These segments highlight Bell’s penchant for storytelling. The humor and authenticity are apparent and winsome.

At one point, he recalls the time when he endeavored to leave music for more gainful employment. After all, he had a family to support! His discovery and admission that he was completely unemployable is funny and endearing.

His wife went to work while he imagined his young children occupying themselves while he gave himself to quiet times of songwriting. The unreality of it all quickly dawned on him.

His candid disclosures about trials and failures are admirable. His audiences are the richer for his humility.

Even though Bell and manager/administrator Dave Zeglinski are able to tour economically by going on the road by themselves, the DVD suggests that this is no longer sustainable to the degree done in the past. Now in his early fifties, viewers see Bell meeting with strategists planning his future. A consensus emerges that performance alone is not enough. Writing must supplement and become a new vehicle for his career to flourish. Bell has just released Christmastide the third e-Book in this collection of PilgrimYear reflections. He plans to release a hardback in 2015.

This video provides a gallery view of Bell’s 18 albums, giving brief insight into the making of each one. Also shown are glimpses of the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, playing Massey Hall with a symphony orchestra. This led to a series of similar performances across Canada, which is quite remarkable. Not too many artists have the privilege of touring with a national orchestra.

Lastly, as important as commercial success can be to maintain longevity, towards the end viewers get an alternative view of a career like Bell’s. Whereas Searching for Sugar Man moved me to tears over someone finally getting some of their just rewards, Steve Bell’s story causes me to consider faithfulness to calling, a better measure of success. Integrity involves refusing to deviate from what we know to do. Viewers see this trajectory in Bell’s life.  

His commitment has produced artistry with depth and genuine care for his fans. Bell recalls the time when he judged a lyric too overt for the segment of his audience that might not share his faith. Concern like this is rare.

Artists like Steve Bell, Sixto Rodriguez and Cliff Richard remind us that character is more important than recognition and earthly rewards. However one might imagine what a Christian artist should be, it looks at least in part, like what we see in this DVD.  

One of the highest and funniest accolades comes from Bob Bennett who wants to be the guy who carries Steve Bell’s luggage. “Make way for Mr. Bell, please.”   


We live in a day when some consumers have become more intentional about what their purchases support. Having seen Bell in concert and met him personally, this documentary captures the essence of a man dedicated to making a difference that has eternal ramifications. Those who share his faith would do well to consider supporting his ministry. Expect mutual enrichment.
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