‘The Jesus Revolution’ Features Christians And Hippies Glowing In The California Sun, But Ignores Some Key Facts

The Jesus Revolution is a “faith-based movie” (in that the filmmakers specialize in Christian-themed movies and work closely with specific churches) overtly about acceptance. Set in 1969, it stars Kelsey Grammer as a square pastor who accepts a hippie hitchhiker into his flock, and the two team up to bring Christ to the counterculture.

This kind of acceptance is naturally an attractive idea to many liberal-minded viewers, who have long wondered why Christianity should have to continue being associated with hierarchical, intolerant authoritarianism when Jesus himself seemed to preach a lot of egalitarianism, tolerance, and forgiveness. So, a conservative pastor teams up with a kooky hippie — great story! On the surface, it does seem to scratch that “Jesus was a socialist” itch. And yet, the obvious question for many such viewers becomes: how far does that tolerance actually go?

In the movie, pastor Chuck Smith (Grammer) teams up with hippie Lonnie Frisbee (Jonathan Roumie, who played Jesus in 24 episodes of The Chosen), both characters based on real guys. It’s a heartwarming team-up, though it never answers some pretty basic questions that often prevent this very kind of thing.

What if Chuck and Lonnie had differing ideas about the gays? Or even just pre-marital sex? That seems like something pretty basic that directors Jon Erwin and Brent McCorkle would want to address, and not only do they not address it, I had to go to Google after the credits rolled to learn that the real Lonnie Frisbee was actually a gay man who died of complications from AIDS in 1993 (covered in a 2005 documentary, Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher, from director David Di Sabatino).

That seems like… well, a pretty big matzoh ball to just leave unaddressed in a movie about acceptance. It makes something about the whole enterprise seem slightly fishy and suspect, even when you respect what The Jesus Revolution is attempting to do on the surface.

Distributed by Lionsgate (a mainstream distributor that occasionally dabbles in faith-based films), The Jesus Revolution takes its title from a 1971 Time Magazine cover story. While that makes it sound like an origin story for the article, it’s actually based on a 2018 memoir written by one of the magazine’s subjects, Greg Laurie, a shaggy-haired California kid played in the movie by shaggy-haired California kid Joel Courtney (Super 8, The Kissing Booth).

One strand of the story sees Smith opening his church to hippies and partnering with Frisbee, which turns his struggling church into an immediate success. The other strand is the love story/coming-of-age tale about fatherless Greg, who falls in love with beautiful blonde hippie chick Cathe, played by Anna Grace Barlow. The two eventually get involved with Smith/Frisbee’s church together, and for the most part, that goes really well too. In fact, a good hour of the film feels like a padded montage of happy endings, complete with “soaring music,” in that eyes-closed-hands-raised Christian rock kind of way.

Greg’s “conflict,” such as it is, is that Cathe’s well-to-do father doesn’t want his daughter to marry a guy who doesn’t seem to have many career prospects beyond the church like Greg. Greg eventually gets his own flock and everything seems to work out, but left unsaid is the matter of who is actually paying these pastors. Chuck’s own congregation seems to be dwindling at first too, but is reinvigorated with help from the hippie whisperer, Lonnie. There are aspects of “success” and “failure” addressed in The Jesus Revolution, but we never see a collection plate or any clues as to how the business aspect of these churches function. Don’t make money a plot point if you’re not prepared to acknowledge it in any way.

For most of its runtime, The Jesus Revolution could basically be dismissed as saccharine propaganda for churches that discovered faith-based recovery programs in the sixties, while never mentioning recovery programs by name, showing money changing hands, or acknowledging that one of its principal characters was a gay man. Yet belatedly, it does get into an interesting conflict. Chuck and Lonnie begin to fall out when Lonnie seems to get addicted to the spotlight, turning more towards faith healing and old-school tent revival pseudo-magic tricks, while Chuck prefers to keep the focus on simply preaching the gospel. Doctrinal issues, ya know? Kind of a big deal, historically.

This was actually an interesting wrinkle in The Jesus Revolution, and at times the filmmakers handled it with impressive nuance, allowing material concerns to complicate the heartwarming story of acceptance they’re obviously trying to tell. Yet the story eventually shunts Lonnie aside in favor of the mostly toothless Greg/Cathe story, saving Lonnie and Chuck’s eventual reconciliation (such as it was) for epilogue text at the end of the film. That this conflict seemed so obviously abridged, and its resolution so rushed, was why I ended up looking up Frisbee in the first place. It’s fine for storytellers to leave out certain details; in fact it’s impossible not to. But it’s a problem when the absence of certain information is so glaring that we can feel it even without knowing what it is.

About a year ago, I wrote about some emerging signs that traditionally “liberal” Hollywood seemed ready to embrace traditionally “conservative” Christianity (or at least their own gentler conceptions of it), as seen in relatively religion-positive films like Don’t Look Up and The Eyes Of Tammy Faye. The Jesus Revolution seemed, at least on the face of it, a bit like an attempt at a similar detente from the other side.

If you’re going to do that though, you can’t cheat. Or at least, you can’t cheat in ways as obvious as The Jesus Revolution cheats, eliding and exaggerating through the obvious questions most viewers would have just so you can have longer montages of tinkly pianos and hippies being baptized in glowing California sunlight.

‘The Jesus Revolution’ is currently playing in theaters everywhere. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can read more of his reviews here.