The Righteous Gemstones

HBO’s upcoming comedy about a family of televangelists is a mildly political skewering of this American phenomenon; the show stars Danny McBride and premiers August 18th. The trailer pairs a classic song with comedic trailer editing techniques to showcase the uniqueness of its satire. “Gonna Build a Mountain” was first performed by Anthony Newley in 1961, but the version that has become most popular and is used here is Sammy Davis Jr.’s 1962 rendition of the gospel hit. 

The refrain from the song opens the trailer: “Gonna build a mountain / from a little hill,” Davis Jr. sings, as we see McBride praying, saying “good afternoon Jesus” between these lines. Right away, it is clear the mountain in question refers to his family’s televangelism business, as the very next shot shows the family on set at a huge televangelism event. In addition, the ending plagal cadence (IV-I) at the end of each line of the song evokes sacred music, as is appropriate for gospel music. The line “from a little hill” directly contrasts with the spectacle of the set, highlighting the inherent comedic value of situation.

At 0:14 the music ends with a bit of reverb, letting the dialogue and scene that follows feel decidedly more modern in contrast to the preceding 60s gospel music. This give and take between elements of contemporary life and the roots of televangelism is a dichotomy that the trailer plays on throughout. For example, at 0:38, the music continues to play as an airhorn accidentally sounds at a baptism ceremony, the horn apparently gone awry. 

At 0:58 this counterpoint between the music and image is amplified, with a choir singing “build a mountain, mountain, mountain,” while we see erratic driving, food fights, and even gunshots synchronized to the beat. 

At 1:06 this is suddenly cut out with the sound of a doorbell back in the scene where we were originally introduced to McBride’s character. The doorbell is perhaps also symbolic of his problematic relationship with religion, possibly reminiscent of a church bell: he refuses to answer it, instead praying to God for patience and promptly giving up on that idea, instead yelling at his children to answer it.

The refrain “gonna build me a mountain” is heard one more time with the final title card, with a logo clearly stylized to evoke the original televangelism movement of the 1950s and 60s.

In all, the choice of music in this trailer both works as an homage to elements of televangelism as it was originally conceived, and as a contrast (or, terms of its energy, complement) to the morally questionable antics of the Gemstone family. In all, it’s effectively presented as a mostly good-natured jest at the uniquely American venture in spirituality.

— Curtis Perry