The contemporary box office may bow primarily to superheroes and sequels, but it’s also played host to another consistent contender of late: the Jesus genre.
From The Chosen, Dallas Jenkins’s biblically inspired streaming series, to American Underdog, about the faith of former NFL star Kurt Warner, to Father Stu, Mark Wahlberg’s true story about an unlikely priest, the big screen has recently been a regular home for profitable testimonies of Christianity.
For many outside—and some inside—the church, this might elicit eye rolls. Faith-based movies, after all, have a reputation for “preaching to the choir,” often “more akin to interventions than filmmaking . . . [and] motivated by a desire to trap people into hearing a gospel presentation, or as a consolation for losing the culture war.”
Jesus Revolution (out today in theaters) would seem to portend a hearty embrace of this polarizing mold. A movie about the evangelical movement of “Jesus freaks” in the 1960s and 70s is meant to reimpose Christianity upon a world increasingly averse to it, right?
While surely an easier sell to those already in the pews, Jesus Revolution follows the refreshing path of recent faith-based fare, which has been more interested in engaging authentic questions—and messy relationships—than in selling simplistic, “clean” answers. Revolution manages to celebrate faith while simultaneously veering off the Jesus-cures-all track. And rather than patting one audience on the back while critiquing another, it challenges all sides—acknowledging the dangers of both rigid tradition and progressive fluidity.
Nitro Meets Glycerin
Jon Erwin (I Can Only Imagine), who codirected Jesus Revolution with Brent McCorkle, prides himself on telling true stories. In this case, he recalls drawing inspiration from the striking visual of Time magazine’s iconic cover from June 21, 1971, which announced the countercultural “Jesus Revolution” and featured a psychedelic, purple-hued illustration of Christ’s face. The saga behind the image was even more arresting: a hippie revival began in California in the late ’60s and swept the country, with youth nationwide trading one countercultural M.O.— sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll—for another: the teachings of Jesus Christ.
“It boiled down to this moment,” Erwin explains, “where this pastor, Chuck Smith, opened up his doors—off a dare, really, from his daughter—to this group of people he didn’t understand, that most of the established church would say couldn’t come to church.”
The people in question were hippies: youth in the counterculture who had dropped out of mainstream society and its “square” values in favor of free love, folk music, drug trips, and antiwar activism. The attitude of many American churches at the time, Erwin says, was that hippies were welcome—but only if they took baths, cut their hair, got jobs, and rejoined society first.
“Chuck just threw his doors open to these people as they were, and they flooded in,” Erwin adds. And it resulted in “this nitro-meeting-glycerin moment that ended up changing and shaping America.”
Unlikely Duo: Chuck Smith and Lonnie Frisbee
Jesus Revolution mostly unfolds through the eyes of a young Greg Laurie (Joel Courtney), who as a teen in Southern California was caught between the transcendent offerings of both the cross and the culture (complete with rock-concert acid trips). But Erwin wisely hands the bigger-picture theme—the clash of conservative and charismatic ministry—to Emmy-winner Kelsey Grammer and costar Jonathan Roumie (of The Chosen fame). Grammer’s Chuck Smith begins as a faithful, albeit uninspired, shepherd of an aging, fading congregation. Roumie’s Lonnie Frisbee brings the flower power as a sort of hippie spokesman, herding his people into Smith’s unlikely care.
The attitude of many American churches at the time was that hippies were welcome . . . but only if they took baths, cut their hair, got jobs, and rejoined society first.
The film’s first half is buoyed by their comedic interplay, accentuating the contrast between their attire and lifestyles (Roumie’s nasally, all-smiles “Far out, brother” counters Grammer’s concerned-dad energy). When the dueling parties finally work hand in hand, we taste the “revolution,” at points underscored by archival TV news footage.
Artistically, the film has its flaws. Like Father Stu, which touts a similar message (you don’t have to hail from a clean background to be saved and used by God), Revolution could benefit from more patient depictions of big story beats. Romance and faith transformations sometimes move a bit too quickly for us to feel their full effects.
But Revolution shines in its more tension-filled back half, when the sunshine and rainbows of these preachers’ growing West Coast celebrity sparks internal feuding about the ministry’s future. When Frisbee’s initially innocent, free-spirited nature gives way to an emphasis on his own talent as a self-described prophet, we’re challenged to reconsider whether his abundant personality is aiding, or misleading, the body of Christ. Is this lovable leader actually a fraud? The uncomfortable question lingers long enough to ground the entire titular movement in the authentic murkiness of reality rather than the dubious polish of propaganda.
Roumie, who dropped 20 pounds and committed himself to extensive research for the role, excels at bringing the hippie preacher’s contradictions to life. For much of his screen time, the actor is tapping into a sillier version of the warmth that powers his rendition of Christ on The Chosen, which shares Revolution cinematographer Akis Konstantakopoulos. At other points, Roumie deploys an irritability behind closed doors, both in marriage and ministry, that makes clear he’s far from the real Jesus in this story. This dynamic is uneasy but truthful—which makes it captivating.
To the real Greg Laurie, the searching teen at the film’s heart, Frisbee was just another in a long line of key people who didn’t last as a fatherly figure. But he was also the man who sat down cross-legged on a sidewalk in pouring rain, waiting to offer encouragement at Laurie’s lowest moment of intoxication. He was also the man who dipped Laurie beneath the waters of baptism.
“Lonnie very much was, like, an implementation of God’s grace in Greg’s life,” said Joel Courtney, who plays Laurie. “God sending Lonnie into Greg’s life (ultimately led him to) God’s ‘forever family.’”