In the upcoming feature film Jesse’s Gift, Jesse Godwin is a talented musician who struggles to succeed and survive in not only the music industry, but also the sometimes harsh streets of Atlanta.
Writer, director, and producer Ken Merritt developed the character and story of Jesse into the short film Jesse’s Gift, and cast his brother, singer-songwriter Michael Merritt, in the titular role. The short became a hit and won a contest to receive funding to be made into a feature-length film. With the release of the soundtrack, there is more to be learned about the movie and its interwoven partner: the music.
Performing the songs for the film is musical group Jesse & Co., led by Jesse’s Gift lead actor Michael Merritt and made up of who he says are the best musicians he knows. Lead guitarist Dwayne Larring, who has worked with big names such as Kelly Clarkson and Lauren Daigle, also mastered and mixed the soundtrack. The band also includes Preston Shinall on rhythm guitar and Alex Arguelles on the drums, both Cherokee County residents, and the Merritt brothers’ nephew Jonathan Crowell, who plays bass guitar. Track six of the soundtrack, “Bottom of the Mountain,” also features special guest Thomas Gabriel, grandson of country music legend Johnny Cash, collaborating alongside the group.
The soundtrack combines rock with country and varies with emotion and intensity. The soundtrack was not made to be something to carry the movie on its shoulders, but to instead work together with the writing. The short was awarded Best Soundtrack by the Cobb International Film Festival in 2021, and listening to the soundtrack on Spotify and other music streaming services makes its reason for winning clear. Each song has its own unique identity, feeling, and place in Jesse’s story.
In “Bottom of the Mountain,” collaborator Thomas Gabriel sings,
“Tell me there’s more to the story, than just a man who’s fell upon hard times.”
The song represents the beginning of the movie: Jesse at the bottom, homeless in the streets of Atlanta. There’s regret and self-anger in the guitar’s low notes, the banging drums, and the singing choir in the background.
“There’s got to be somewhere, some glory, or else I’d rather die at the bottom of a mountain.”
As though, if life does not get better, Jesse will give up altogether, willing to die where he is: at the bottom.
Facing the Music
Ken describes the character of Jesse as “a good man that makes bad decisions,” and one decision he often makes is giving up. Not only giving up and being willing to die at the bottom of the mountain, but also giving up on his daughter, Brooke. A struggle with grief and the idea that she is better off without him convince Jesse to leave her behind, but his decision only burns another bridge. While the musical underdog story has a heavy focus in the original short film, Ken says the short film is “more like a father-daughter love story. However, the feature has become more of a comeback story. In a way, this is Rocky but substitute boxing gloves for a guitar. And Jesse’s battle is in life instead of in the ring. Instead of Apollo Creed, Jesse’s foes are failure, rejection, and grief.” While the overall tones shift, both the short film and feature-length film tell the same story — a story about facing the music.
The story of Jesse is in some ways similar to Ken’s life story: a man with talent and a dream who gives up his dream when life gets in the way. The call to action comes when someone in his family contacts him, and he returns to pursue his dreams and reconnect with his family. Writers oftentimes use themselves as their best reference; however, Ken finds that Jesse’s inner demons are more universal than his own.
“People ask me if Jesse’s Gift is based off a true story,” Ken recalls, “and I’d say that there’s real moments, and the rest is universal.” That universal struggle is also shown through the music.
“Tread Water” is a slow and soft song, giving a soothing sound with the guitar and piano working together with Michael’s voice. The lyrics themselves tell a more melancholy story. Michael describes the song being about trudging your way through the struggles of life.
“Yesterday was different, but not enough,”
Jesse sings about the strain of monotony: the struggle of waking up every day with no home, and nothing changing for the better.
For Michael, the strain of monotony was felt while working on the short film during the pandemic with the restrictions that applied, which often made him feel as if nothing was getting done, and the cast and crew were just trudging through.
The songs are also resonating with listeners, including one woman who told Ken the story of her battle with cancer. He shares that she approached him and explained that she found comfort in “Tread Water,” especially in the sentiment of
“rain will come and wash away the pain,”
things will get better. Until that time comes,
“I will just tread water.”
On Stage & Screen
Jesse’s Gift premieres on Friday, August 4, at 7:00 p.m. as part of the Ninth Annual Cobb International Film Festival in the Earl and Rachel Smith Strand Theatre, along with other films including the short film Lagoon, produced by Ken’s son and fellow filmmaker, Gabe Merritt, who also plays a supporting role in Jesse’s Gift. Following the premiere is a question-and-answer session at Piastra Restaurant in Marietta, beginning at 10:00 p.m.
There will be another screening of Jesse’s Gift on Friday, September 1, along with a concert by the film’s band, Jesse & Co., at The Mill on Etowah in Canton.
Ken also plans to show Jesse’s Gift at film festivals and aspires to one day have it playing in movie theaters. He is currently working on his next project, a period drama titled Boot Hill, and an anthology-style episodic feature, The Fourth Wall, in collaboration with local filmmaking community First Friday Filmmakers.
While Ken continues chasing his filmmaking dreams, his feature film debut is already winning awards including:
Best Soundtrack, 2023
Songwriters Michael Merritt and Gordon Michaels
IFM International Film Market
Best Trailer, 2023
Editor Noah Pinnt
IFM International Film Market
Best Made in Georgia, Summer 2023
Editor Charles Holbrook
Southern Shorts Awards
Best Supporting Actor in Short Film, 2022
World Music & Independent Film Festival
Best Soundtrack, 2021
Songwriter Michael Merritt
Seventh Annual Cobb International Film Festival
Spotlight Silver Award, 2021
Director Ken Merritt
Spotlight Film Awards
For the film’s cast and crew, the experience itself was reward enough. Michael shares that he became closer to family thanks to working on Jesse’s Gift. He admits that he wasn’t close to his nephew, Gabe, before filming as most of their lives were spent separately, but working together on Jesse’s Gift has made them feel like family again.
Now that the hard work on Jesse’s Gift is done, Michael shares, “People often wonder if things like this are a waste of time, or what they will get out of it. Don’t worry so much about the destination. Just enjoy the journey.”
Filmmaking: A Family Business
Learn more about the film, Jesse’s Gift, and Ken Merritt’s creative journey in our archive article, “Filmmaking: A Family Business” by Emma Tyler, featured in the March/April 2023 edition of Enjoy Cherokee.
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Nick Feehery has been a proud Cherokee County resident his whole life. He is a student at Cherokee High School with a love of drawing and writing stories. He plans to study journalism at Kennesaw State University.