Jesus Revolution, which releases in theaters today, tells the story of the southern California “Jesus Movement.” The movement left in its tie-dyed wake several quasi-denominations (including Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard), the groundwork for the contemporary Christian music industry, and a host of figures still notable today. It is a tale ripe for the excesses of made-by-evangelicals filmmaking, where drama often morphs into preachy melodrama. To their credit, the filmmaking team—led by Jon Erwin, Andrew Erwin, and Kevin Downes—largely resists those temptations. With solid acting, appropriate pacing, and general adherence to the maxim “show, don’t tell,” the result is an effort that is not cringe-worthy but worthy of support from Christians of all stripes.
Actor Kelsey Grammer adds his name to the Christian movie K-list—think Kirk Cameron and Kevin Sorbo, favored leading men with mainstream Hollywood credits. Grammer ups the ante with five Emmys and wide name recognition from his days as Dr. Frasier Crane in the sitcoms Cheers and Frasier. Here, he provides a believable and multifaceted portrayal of Chuck Smith, the pastor of a rather pedestrian Protestant church that is turned upside down when long-haired Lonnie Frisbee parachutes into its midst. Frisbee says, “The people tell me I’m trying to look like Jesus. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather look like.” Jonathan Roumie, best known as Jesus himself in the successful streaming series The Chosen, takes on the role of Frisbee.
Roumie channels the quirky charisma of this original Jesus freak well, but several of Frisbee’s contradictions are papered over. The film addresses elements of the eventual power struggle with Smith and provides brief hints of marital discord, but Frisbee’s troubled past and darker future remains largely unexplored. Even the standard “Where are they now?” updates, presented just before the credits roll, make no mention of Frisbee’s struggles with homosexuality and eventual death from AIDS. Filmgoers with questions about this complex life may benefit from David Di Sabatino’s simple and straightforward 2005 documentary Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher.
Jesus Revolution follows the twists and turns of Frisbee’s life only as they intersect with Smith and Greg Laurie, played by Joel Courtney. Laurie, who is now a megachurch pastor, walks a much straighter road to redemption. The product of a broken home, Laurie hides his pain behind an 8mm movie camera and drawing pad as he searches for love and family. Cathe, played by Anna Grace Barlow, catches his eye just as she is flirting with the counter-culture, rebelling against her upper-class status. Yet, her father ultimately finds the hippie church and the penniless preacher-to-be dating his daughter more vexing. Scenes that easily could have verged toward the saccharine are ultimately, with only a few tolerable exceptions, emotionally engrossing rather than embarrassing.
Distributed nationwide by Lionsgate, the film is looking to draw in viewers outside the Christian bubble. Whether it dents a post-pandemic popular culture remains to be seen. To aid the effort, the filmmakers are banking on a series of pre-screenings to build momentum among a generation of evangelicals that has no memory of doing church with neckties and without electric guitars.
I attended a screening of a not-quite-final cut of the film in a historic theater in Encinitas, California—a few dozen miles from Pirate’s Cove where Smith and Frisbee baptized hundreds in the Pacific Ocean. That theater was a few hours before filled with casually dressed, coffee-sipping young adults—now perhaps more yuppie than hippie—singing words projected on the screen to the tunes of an electrified praise band, the musical descendants of the pioneering group Love Song that is featured in the film.
Obviously, this is no stealth religious film. If unbelievers can get past the title, they will see something on par with mainstream productions of late-1960s period pieces, like A Walk on the Moon. The Christians behind the film hope it will be a tool for evangelism, and, like most good art, it holds the potential to prompt questions about the quest for meaning. Was Jesus just another faddish way to get high? Or, as Frisbee argues in the film, was the 1960s drug culture really about youth searching for God—trying to answer the right questions in the wrong ways?
For believers, the film may spark important questions of ecclesiology. Though the filmmakers steer clear of the role psychedelic drugs like LSD played in Frisbee’s own conversion and the baptisms he performed prior to meeting Smith, there is still plenty on the screen to contemplate. Does every believer have the power to baptize? How much instruction should precede a baptism, and what comes afterward? What happens when you turn pulpits over to the enthusiastic but self-educated? Is this appropriately embracing the model of first-generation Christianity and letting the wind of the Holy Spirit blow? Or is handing the keys of a church building to a teenage pastor an exercise in irresponsibility, even if the masses follow? Why did the movement fade after 1972? Did it fade or just mature?
Jesus Revolution prompts such questions. Unlike much of explicitly Christian filmmaking that has come before it, the first inclination of many audience members upon exiting will not be to either critique or defend the mediocrity that they have just witnessed. Do not expect “they seemed to be trying too hard, but they meant well” to be your first thought.
The audience in Encinitas, including this normally crusty critic, was rapt when it should have been rapt and laughed (loudly) when it should have laughed. The film may or may not spark the sort of sequel to its subject matter for which a much older Laurie is today praying. The pop culture of 2023 seems less inclined to sing that “Jesus is just alright with me” as the Doobie Brothers did on the heels of the Jesus Movement. (Of course, that outcome itself seemed unlikely in 1965 when The Art Reynolds Singers wrote those words as a gospel song.) Regardless, if Jesus Revolution marks a shift to Christian-made cinema that can get out of its own way and let the greatest story ever told shine through, then that itself may be revolutionary enough.
John Murdock is an attorney who writes from Boise.
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Photo by Dan Anderson. Image cropped.