Directed by: Joe Erwin and Brent McCorkle
Distributed by: Lionsgate
Written by Patrick Hao
I have long maintained that Joe Erwin, along with his brother Andrew, are two of the most fascinating filmmakers/moguls working in movies today. Their niche is beyond that of evangelical finger-wagging of Pure Flix. Rather, their films take well-worn genres like the music biopic or the sports drama to spread their evangelical Christian message. It’s no wonder Joe Erwin’s latest effort, with co-director Brent McCorkle, focuses on the “Jesus Freaks” movement of the 1960s centering on the hippie evangelist Lonnie Frisbee.
“Jesus Revolution” plays out like a standard teenage late 60’s early 70’s faire of Boomer nostalgia. If you landed on this movie while channel surfing on TV, you would not be blamed for thinking you were watching “Almost Famous” or “Taking Woodstock.” While the teenagers are flocking to Haight-Ashbury to do drugs and practice some transcendental free love, the Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, run by pastor Chuck Smith (Kelsey Grammar), is struggling to persuade people to attend service during these changing times. Grammar, predictably, plays Smith with his trademark conservatism, marked by that Frasier charm.
Things begin to change for his church when daughter Janette (Ally Ioannides), a child of the flower power movement, brings home Lonnie Frisbee (Jonathan Roumie). His long hair and beard bring to mind Jesus Christ (whom Roumie played on the evangelical show “The Chosen”) but his message and tone appeal to youth in a way that breaks down Smith’s conservative reluctance. Soon the Calvary Chapel begins to grow as the ‘Hippie Evangelical’ Frisbee’s message of welcome and love rather than damnation starts bringing in crowds, and eventually forming communes. Another innovation of the church is the introduction of a rock band, Love Song, the prototype of the evangelical rock heard today.
Meanwhile, the film cuts to Greg Laurie (Joel Courtney), whose book is the main inspiration for the film. He is a disaffected youth, whose troubling experiences with drugs and attraction to a pretty girl lead him to the Calvary Church. He soon becomes a devout follower of the movement and wants to be the youthful face of the evangelical Christian movement.
It is easy to see what Erwin sees in this story. His company has taken the mantle of the Calvary Chapel and have done with film what they did with music. They are not afraid to imbue pop culture into their films as can be seen by the sprinkling of era-specific music from The Animals and America. The rise of the Jesus Freaks movement plays out like gangbusters pop nostalgia. It’s not hard to root for these lovable Christians the way you would root for Stillwater to become a big band.
But, as with many of these evangelical Christian films, “Jesus Revolution” is utterly devoid of drama. Because of its inherent propaganda nature, there cannot be anything controversial that can deviate from the message. Nowhere is it mentioned that Lonnie Frisbee, despite being married to a woman, was well-known in the community for being gay. In fact, an easy Google shows that his homosexuality and drug abuse led to his ouster from the church. In the film, his exit is shown much more magnanimously. Greg Laurie is barely a character, yet half the movie is devoted to his rise in the church. His only real roadblock is that he is too young.
Neither is there really an exploration into why the evangelical movement would draw in the massive crowds it did. There is an interesting story of how Christianity was able to rebrand itself to appeal to those youths who could not quite jive with free love and eastern style spirituality. But, the film refuses to document anything other than the rise and the continuous rise.
As a document of that rise, “Jesus Revolution” is as entertaining as a film of this sort could be. But as much as the Erwins and the Kingdom Story Co. push against the grain of evangelical Christian films, there is always a ceiling. The message is always the number one priority.
“Jesus Revolution” Trailer