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‘Unsung Hero’ Movie Tells the Inspiring True Story of the Smallbone Family — Rebecca St. James and for King + Country’s Joel and Luke

Check out the new inspiring film in theaters April 26th!

We all know that life can be a rollercoaster, with ups and downs in the journey of every family. But few have known more extreme highs and devastating lows than the Smallbone family,  every harrowing and inspiring detail of which plays out in the new movie Unsung Hero, which hits theaters April 26.

Family patriarch David Smallbone suffered a life-altering career setback that led him to move his pregnant wife Helen and their six children from their native Australia to America for a job opportunity that vanished as soon as they arrived in Nashville.

David and the kids mowed lawns and he found himself scrubbing toilets for an artist he had once refused to work with just so the family could survive.

Unsung Hero movie shares the struggles the Smallbone clan endured before the singing career of their daughter, Rebecca St. James, took off, and illuminates the faith and love that sustained them through the darkest times.

(L-R): David and Helen Smallbone with their children, Rebecca St. James, Daniel, Ben, Joel, Luke, Josh and Libby at the "Unsung Hero" Premiere
(L-R): David and Helen Smallbone with their children, Rebecca St. James, Daniel, Ben, Joel, Luke, Josh and Libby at the Unsung Hero movie premiereJason Kempin/Getty Images

A family affair

Brothers Joel and Luke, who record and perform as the award-winning duo for King + Country, were intricately involved in bringing their family’s story to life. Luke serves as producer while Joel is co-writer/co-director and also portrays their father, David.

Joel says early on in the process they decided to test it on someone they knew, who he describes with a smile as “a little crusty.” This friend was involved in the film industry, so they knew he would be honest in his feedback.

Luke and Joel Smallbone at the Unsung Hero movie Premiere
Luke and Joel Smallbone at the Unsung Hero movie PremiereJason Kempin/Getty Images

 “We showed him the movie and he wiped a tear from his eye,” Joel recalled on the red carpet of the film’s premiere in Nashville. “I said, ‘Well, what did you think?’ And he said, ‘I want to be a better dad.’”

Joel and Luke are optimistic that will be the general takeaway when people see Unsung Hero. “My hope is that people walk away with fathers saying, ‘I want to be a better dad.’ I hope that mothers are incredibly seen for all the hard work that they do,” Joel says. “I hope that they see that it matters, that it shapes the next generation.

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Joel continues, “I hope for young kids to see there’s no reason why we can’t dream big dreams, because dreams start in a very vulnerable place, but they can bloom. They can blossom and do something extraordinary. And so my hope is that the family will be infused with great hope.”

Bringing the Smallbone story to life

The Smallbone’s story is brought to life by a gifted cast that includes Daisy Betts (Chicago Fire, Last Resort) as their mother Helen and Terry O’Quinn (Lost, The Walking Dead) as David’s father.

Lucas Black (The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, NCIS: New Orleans) and Candace Cameron Bure portray friends from church, who help the family during their toughest times. Jonathan Jackson (Nashville, Tuck Everlasting) portrays veteran Christian artist Eddie DeGarmo and Kirrilee Berger (One Dollar, K.C. Undercover) does an excellent job as young Rebecca.

The cast also includes several talented youngsters portraying the young Smallbones, including Australian native JJ Pantano as young Luke.

“It’s a wonderful story,” 12-year-old JJ told Woman’s World on the red carpet. “I connected with that story in the sense that I’m very close with my family and we do everything together. That probably appealed to me the most. When I got the audition, I put in so much work and I prayed about it. I prayed about it a lot and it ended up successful, which I’m super grateful [for].”

JJ says getting to know Luke helped him with his performance in the film. “I spent so much time talking to him, getting advice from him and even just watching him,” he says of preparing for the role. “Because watching his mannerisms and the sort of things that he does when he thinks no one else is looking, it really helped me with portraying him.”

Luke Smallbone and JJ Pantano at the Unsung Hero movie Premiere
Luke Smallbone and JJ Pantano at the Unsung Hero movie premiereJason Kempin/Getty Images

Executive producer Andrew Erwin, whose credits include I Can Only Imagine, American Underdog, I Still Believe and Jesus Revolution, admits that when Joel first came to him with the idea, he was skeptical.

“He brought this story to us and said, ‘I want you to do my family story.’ I thought he was crazy,” Andrew laughed on the red carpet. “Because he was, like, ‘I want to write it. I want to co-direct it. I also want to play my father, and I want to shoot it in three months while we’re on break from tour.’ I was, like, ‘You’re nuts. But I believe in you, and so, let’s try this thing.’”

Even though the successful producer agreed the Smallbone family story was compelling, he challenged Joel to find the “why” in the story, not just the “what.”

“Joel went back and they went on tour for three weeks. He took Richard Ramsey, his co-director, with him, and in the back of the bus, they discovered the ‘why,’” Andrew says. “They came back and said, ‘If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.”

This movie is about family is not in the way. It is the way, Andrew says. “I got chills. I’m like, ‘I would watch that movie!’ We’ve infused it into the DNA of every scene, the idea of this man who thought his family was in the way until he lost everything, and he found out his family was the way. It’s special.”

Becoming Rebecca St. James

Rebecca St. James, who became the family’s breakout star when she signed with ForeFront Records and began having hits in the early 90s, says it’s surreal to see their story on the big screen.

“It’s very emotional. It feels very redemptive,” Rebecca says. “Those were hard years for our family, but God did so much in that time to give me a story to tell. I was 15 to 16 when all this was happening, and there was a question about whether or not a 16-year-old had anything to say in Christian music at that time.

“And I think because I saw God do miracles, I had something to say when I came out with my first album at 16. I’m very thankful for it. I cry every time and probably will continue every time I see it.”

Rebecca St. James performing at 37th Annual GMA Dove Music Awards in 2006
Rebecca St. James performing at 37th Annual GMA Dove Music Awards in 2006Rick Diamond/WireImage for Gospel Music Association

Rebecca had high praise for Kirrilee’s performance. “She’s amazing,” she says with a big smile. “Her parents are Australian. She lived there briefly, I think. She has a spotless Australian accent, but more than anything she looks like me. She kind of embodies me. Even the way she holds her mouth is like me. It’s crazy, the details.

“She carried a vulnerability and a strength. I’m just really proud of that combination that she embodied in this film, because I think a lot of women, we can carry that. We can be gentle and strong at the same time. And so I love what she did. I’m very proud of the film as a whole. I’m proud of how she portrayed me.”

As for Kirrilee herself, she was thrilled to be involved in the film. “There were so many parallels to my own life. Being an Australian American, getting to play an Australian; and being a singer-songwriter, getting to play a singer-songwriter. It felt like I was getting a gift by getting the script in front of me.”

Kirrilee says she didn’t meet Rebecca until they had already started filming, but she did her research by watching videos and interviews.

“On set, I had her brothers. I had her husband there, so I sort of had the encyclopedias on Rebecca St. James, and they were kind and collaborative and supportive,” Kirrilee says. “I knew that they were never going to let me fall. And they were there to support me and uplift me and guide me in the right direction always of making sure that Bec was seen, heard and honored through every step of this process.”

(L-R): Joel Smallbone, JJ Pantano, Candace Cameron Bure, Daisy Betts and Kirrilee Berger attend the Unsung Hero movie screening
(L-R): Joel Smallbone, JJ Pantano, Candace Cameron Bure, Daisy Betts and Kirrilee Berger attend the Unsung Hero movie screeningVivien Killilea/Getty Images for Lionsgate

Candace Cameron Bure feels Unsung Hero will encourage families. “There is so much hope in it, because there are miracles that are answered,” says Candace, whose production company helped produce the film.

“We really showcase the hardships and the struggles and so it’s reality. And because there’s hope at the end of this movie and you see the journey that the Smallbone family took to where they are today, you know that God can change all things. God can move mountains.”

Unsung Heroes movie lifting hearts

Many think that the fact the Unsung Hero movie is a true story will appeal to audiences. “People want real. They want genuine. They want to relate,” Danny Gokey said on the red carpet. “You always relate when you tell the truth and you don’t butter it up. Christianity loves to make it beautiful, but when you tell the truth and you’re honest about it, I think you reach more people.”

In addition to the film, on April 26th The Inspired By Soundtrack will also release. Beyond the title track, the album features “Lead Me On” with Amy Grant, “Checking In” with Lee Brice, “To Hell with the Devil (Rise),” featuring Lecrae and Stryper; and “Place in This World” with Michael W. Smith.

“Those guys came to me and said, ‘Hey, we got this crazy idea. We want to make an Inspired By soundtrack and we want to know if you’d be okay if we did ‘Place in This World,’” Michael W. Smith says, recalling his conversation with Joel and Luke.

“And they said, ‘We want you to sing it with us.’ I went, ‘Really?’ I said, ‘As long as you guys make it your own . . . And they did — it sounds like for King & Country. We had a blast!

 “Those guys’ energy, it reminded me of my younger self, just bouncing off the walls with creativity. Hopefully, I still have some of that, but back in the day I was exactly like that,” Michael continues with a laugh. “People would look at me going, ‘That guy is crazy!’ But I had so much inside of me and that’s why these guys are doing well, because they got that. They’re very gifted and I’m really proud of them.”

Luke says it was both challenging and fun to work on the album. “‘Place In This World’ might be more powerful with its lyric today than it was even three decades ago,” he tells WW. “People are trying to find their place in this world. So our hope is to reintroduce it to a whole new bunch of people.

“It was a very special project, but it was a little difficult. Everybody thinks that doing covers are going to be really easy. Back then they had songs that went for five minutes, so you’ve got to cut two minutes out of a song. How do you even do that? It was a fun, creative test that  we really enjoyed.”

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Unsung Hero movie inspires faith and family

Ultimately, Rebecca and her family are hopeful the movie will move those who see it. “I really hope that people are encouraged in the areas of faith and family,” she smiles. “We’re living in a time where people are stressed, anxious, fearful, very discouraged, and especially discouraged, I think, in faith and in the area of family.

Rebecca adds, “Marriages, a lot of people find that difficult, and it is a fight to stay close in marriage. Lots of curve balls in life come up against you in that area and in family life too, in parenting. I think that they can see a family that is struggling but clings to God and to each other through it. That is what people are responding to. Every time I go to screenings of this, it’s a standing ovation because I think people know they need this encouragement.”

In fact, the Smallbones are declaring April 26th to be the new “Family Day.”

“We’re obviously very proud of this,” Joel says. “If you love the ’90s, if you love music, if you love your mum, if you love miracles, if you love family, if you love faith, come out to the theaters on April 26 and beyond. We all need a good family day.”

The poster advertising the Unsung Hero movie
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