Director Paul Hoen, the brilliant cast, and the skilled composers made magic happen with this DCOM, and Hoen rightfully won the Director’s Guild Award. Let It Shine, written by Eric Daniel and Don D. Scott, is a loose modern adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. The protagonist, Cyrus, is a preacher’s kid who leads the church choir on Sunday morning but also deeply loves to create and produce rap music. He is played to perfection by Tyler James Williams. Cyrus’ best friend Kris (Trevor Jackson) has a crush on a recording artist named Roxie (Coco Jones), a hometown success who returns to Atlanta to host a contest for aspiring musicians. Cyrus enters the contest with the stage name Truth, a moniker that reflects his struggle for the rest of the film. While Cyrus clearly is passionate about his art, Kris enters the contest and is more interested in getting to know Roxie than making music (he’s not very good at rap, either). A local bully called Lord of Da Bling (Brandon Mychal Smith) ridicules both superstar Roxie and Cyrus, who works at the club as a busboy. Cyrus’ rhymes win the contest, so Truth is announced as the rap champ, but there’s one small problem. He included a photo of himself and Kris in the entry, and now Roxie thinks Kris is the winner.
The guys find themselves in a web of lies pretty quickly. Cyrus wants to tell Roxie the truth from the very beginning and is dismayed to see Kris getting close to her, acting as if he is Truth the rapper. Cyrus goes to great lengths to keep the secret after Kris pressures him not to tell Roxie what happened. Kris pretends to rap, even though every word is from a recording of Cyrus’ voice. Cyrus dutifully produces the music that he wrote, that he doesn’t even get to perform himself. As you might imagine, the secret must come out, and Roxie is clearly hurt by Kris and Cyrus’ actions. It all plays out onstage at a rap battle event. After Cyrus raps the real truth, Roxie sings back, “Tell me are you who I thought you were, or who I wanted you to be? Did you do it all for him, or were you only playing me?” Kris wasn’t invested in a long-term relationship with Roxie, but Cyrus has developed honest feelings for her, and it’s rewarding when she forgives him and they finally get together at the end.
While Cyrus’ mom (Dawnn Lewis) is basically supportive of his artistic interests throughout the film, his pastor father (Courtney B. Vance) thinks rap is the devil’s music. He attacks the genre in his sermons and is appalled to learn that his son participates in rap. Eventually, even the preacher realizes that truthful messages can come from music. And I must tell you that this soundtrack is pure delight. “Don’t Run Away,” “Guardian Angel,” and “Let It Shine” are a few of my favorites. I purchased the CD when the movie came out and still am moved by this music. It’s the only Disney Channel Original Movie soundtrack to feature Black Gospel music, and the only DCOM to depict any kind of Christian church-going. Much later, you’ll see a great storyline on an African American church in Sydney to the Max (and if you watched Sister, Sister either in the ’90s or via Disney Channel’s 2000s reruns, there’s a powerful church story there)… but Let It Shine was the first and only DCOM to bring religion and music together like this. We see a religious leader so focused on all the wrong things, which is a sad but true occurrence in real life. The pastor even singles out Roxie for her celebrity lifestyle, apologizing only after his wife strongly encourages him to.
In addition to the uniqueness of its themes, this is also one of very few DCOMs to feature a Black cast. I wish Coco Jones had had even more of a presence on Disney Channel after this. She had guest arcs on both So Random! and Good Luck Charlie, but you should watch her YouTube video “What Really Happened” to learn more about her time with Disney as an actor and singer. These days, you can find her as Hilary Banks on Bel-Air. Now that I’ve been reminded of her outfits as Roxie, oh my goodness! What an incredible wardrobe! One of the best of any DCOM lead.
In closing, I’ll share where this movie sits in my personal DCOM upbringing. Not everyone takes a break from Disney Channel, but I did, and the end of high school was basically where that started to happen for me. I had just graduated in June 2012 when this film premiered and would temporarily tune out sometime after Teen Beach Movie in 2013 or Cloud 9 in 2014. It’s satisfying to know that near the end of a Disney Channel era, this excellent movie told a really good story for viewers of all ages. I hope you have a chance to revisit Let It Shine or see it for the first time on Disney+.