Producers: Kevin Downes, Jon Erwin, Andrew Erwin, Daryl Lefever, Joshua Walsh and Jerilyn Equibel Directors: Jon Erwin and Brent McCorkle Screenplay: John Gunn and Jon Erwin Cast: Joel Courtney, Jonathan Roumie, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Anna Grace Barlow, Kelsey Grammer, Nic Bishop, Jackson Robert Scott, Nicholas Cirillo, Ally Ioannides, Julia Campbell, Mina Sundwall, DeVon Franklin, Charlie Morgan Patton and Jolie Jenkins Distributor: Lionsgate
Here’s a faith-based film whose basic appeal is to the charismatic evangelical group whose origin it celebrates—the Calvary Chapel Association, which numbers nearly two thousand independent churches globally. Based on a 2018 book by Greg Laurie, who joined the denomination early on and became pastor at one of Calvary Chapel’s first expansion churches, it’s what can be called an authorized cinematic history, with rough edges smoothed off and a benign face put on everything. But it does paint a portrait, however sanitized, of an intriguing movement of twentieth-century Christian revivalism in the United States.
The movie’s title comes from a gushing 1971 cover story in Time Magazine, but the start of the so-called Jesus movement dates from a few years earlier, when Lonnie Frisbee, who’d joined the hippies of San Francisco in his late teens, began talking about the Bible among the flower children. Preaching the gospel became a preoccupation, and he soon had attracted a following. In 1968 he was introduced to Chuck Smith, the pastor of a small traditional church at Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, who invited him and his followers to become part of the still-fledgling congregation, which grew astronomically under Smith and Frisbee and gained notoriety in the process. Greg Laurie, a teen searching for direction in his life, joined the group in 1970 under Frisbee’s supportive guidance.
The treatment by John Gunn and co-director Jon Erwin passes over Frisbee’s early career, starting in 1968 with Smith, portrayed by Kelsey Grammer as a preacher initially hostile to the hippie lifestyle but easily convinced by the easygoing sincerity of Frisbee (Jonathan Roumie) to invite hippies into his church despite the opposition of some of its less open-minded members. Separately we’re introduced to Laurie (Joel Courtney), a kid from a broken home whose mother Charlene (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) is an alcoholic, being introduced to the movement by pretty Cathe (Anna Grace Barlow), and gradually becoming fully committed to it. Nodding to its source, the movie also includes some flashbacks to his unhappy childhood, in which he’s played by Jackson Robert Scott.
From this point the movie becomes a simple success story, with the movement growing astronomically and becoming a national media phenomenon through the appearance of the Time story (the author of which is played by Devon Franklin) and spawning an explosion of upbeat Christian music. Laurie, adept with a camera, documents the rise, eventually assuming a role among the denomination’s unofficial leadership team.
The one discordant element is the departure of Frisbee, presented here as the result of his increasingly grandiose view of himself as a faith-healer and prophet. In reality his lifestyle was complicated, and his separation from the denomination not nearly as simple a matter as depicted here; interested viewers might want to check out David Di Sabatino’s 2007 documentary “Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher,” which also goes into his life after the breakup. “Jesus Revolution” ignores his post-1971 troubles, content merely to note in a closing caption that he and Smith reconciled prior to Frisbee’s death in 1993.
Unfortunately for the movie, Roumie’s absence from the last third or so leaves a gaping dramatic hole that Grammer and Courtney don’t fill manage to fill; he’s quietly charismatic, and not just in a religious sense, while they’re just dully earnest. So ultimately we’re left with a vision of what seems a bland, feel- good version of Christianity, with doctrinal nuances pretty much overlooked in favor of a simple message that accepting Jesus as savior through baptism will bring joy and peace. (In reality the denomination officially espouses a Calvinist theology, though hardly of an extreme sort.) On a more positive note, production designer Aimee Holmberg and costumer Anna Redmon are fairly successful in creating a 1960s ambience, and cinematographer Akis Konstantakopoulos does a pretty good job of convincing us that the Alabama locations are actually in Southern California. John Puckett’s editing can feel somewhat lethargic, but the score by co-director Brent McCorkle captures the era decently, especially as augmented by snatches of pop tunes.
Congregants of churches in the Calvary Chapel Association will no doubt appreciate seeing their founding fathers portrayed so positively on screen. Those who are not members of the choir may enjoy being introduced to what is now a distant religious movement, even if the approach is relentlessly upbeat, inspirational and simplistic.