Jesus Revolution may take place in the 70s, but it’s a movie for our times.
And it’s based on a true story.
A nation divided, distrust in the prevailing powers, rapid technological development, social and cultural upheaval, and many powers hostile to democracy are all accurate descriptions of both the 1970s and the 2020s—two desperate generations.
Hippies were “sheep without a shepherd, chasing hard after lies.” They were desperate, much like our young generation, yearning and struggling to find meaning.
When hippies reached the end of drugs, sex, and rock ’n roll, where could they turn? When the church finally opened its doors, an awakening was born.
Jesus Revolution tells that story.
The true story of the Jesus revolution
Jesus Revolution follows Greg Laurie’s (Joel Courtney) romantic pursuit of Cathe (Anna Grace Barlow) in their senior year of high school and the year after they graduate. The real Greg Laurie was involved with the movie and still preaches at Harvest Church in California.
Jesus Revolution (rated PG-13 for strong drug content involving teens and some thematic elements) unfolds the early days of the Jesus Movement in the 1970s, also called the “Jesus Revolution” by TIME magazine.
Chuck Smith, played by the Emmy Award-winning Kelsey Grammer, is the definition of a “square,” the hippie’s name for boring, straightlaced, unenlightened folks. Smith is a Baptist pastor of a small, dwindling church. He responds to hippies like most other adults at the time: with confusion, disgust, and worry.
Enter the hippie, homeless, itinerant evangelist Lonnie Frisbee (Jonathan Roumie). He sports bell-bottom jeans, beads, and an untamed beard. Frisbee resembles Jesus, not only because Roumie plays Jesus in The Chosen but also because his fierce compassion for the lost and confused recalls Jesus’ heart.
Once Smith gets past his own prejudice against the flower-power vibe of Frisbee, Smith becomes aware of his own hypocrisy. In a moving change of heart, Smith opens his doors to hippies, which Frisbee describes as a lost generation of “sheep without a shepherd.” The relationship between Frisbee and Smith provides ample comedic relief when they partner in ministry.
At a point that may hit a little too close to home for many pastors, the pharisaical deacons of Smith’s church confront him about the hippies’ dirty bare feet staining the carpet. Smith is exasperated. The movie then cuts to a Jesus-inspired scene you have to see in theaters, one of many tear-jerking moments in the film.
An awakening of young people in California catches fire. At Pirate’s Cove, we see thousands of baptisms by Smith and Lonnie. The Holy Spirit moves through the unlikely pair’s unrestrained love and faithfulness in preaching the real gospel to everyone, the most lost, sick, and drug-addicted—including the lovestruck Laurie and Cathe.
Jesus Revolution isn’t too preachy
Miraculous healings, passionate preaching, and a groovy rock band that worships the Lord all provide a picture of God’s kingdom working to reach a “desperate” generation. At this point, we reach a climax of redemption, full of tears, acceptance, love, and a spreading awakening.
If the movie ended there, it would fall into the trap of most Christian movies that often present a painfully platitudinous (and untrue) message: Jesus makes all of our problems go away.
But Jesus Revolution doesn’t fall into this trap because the true story doesn’t end there.
From then on, the movie follows the breakdown of Frisbee and Smith’s partnership and Laurie’s deepening sense of self-doubt. We’re reminded that Frisbee is not Jesus, despite his appearances. Behind closed doors, Frisbee can be irritable and grandiose. His marriage begins to fail, and he starts to make the Jesus Movement more about himself. Frisbee and Smith part ways.
While this isn’t covered in the movie, Frisbee would eventually become a part of the Vineyard Movement. His wife would have an affair, they would divorce, and he would struggle with homosexual relationships until he tragically died of AIDS in 1993. The director Jon Erwin shared with us on The Denison Forum Podcast that, unfortunately, many have written Frisbee’s name out of the history of the Jesus Movement.
Yet Frisbee was powerfully used by Jesus. (Don’t forget how God called king David a man after his heart.) Erwin told us he did not want to revise history—God uses broken people.
Is Jesus Revolution a good movie?
Jesus Revolution (nearly entirely) avoids cheesiness and doesn’t feel forced. Sometimes, relationships seem to develop a bit too quickly. The movie’s central story, the romance between Laurie and Cathe, feels authentic but can be overshadowed by other themes.
Aside from this, the movie is excellent. It is well-directed, well-acted, and well-written. Christian movies often lack funding, and their flatness can make for boring and unrealistic films. Not so with Jesus Revolution.
Jonathan Roumie and Kelsey Grammer’s performances invoke laughter and tender joy—the fire of a young man awakening an elderly one to renewed passion for Jesus.
Jesus Revolution honestly and sympathetically portrays hippies as hungry seekers of spiritual truth and love, not just drugged-up kids without a sense of morals. Yet the movie also honestly shows the effects of psychedelics and drug addiction, revealing why so many disenfranchised hippies turned to Jesus and became known as “Jesus Freaks.”
Jesus Revolution is well-crafted and was filmed with a large budget. The movie shows that there could be a resurgence of Christian media in Hollywood. In our interview with director Jon Erwin, he said, “In Hollywood, there’s a lot of people under the hood that had been silently people of faith, saying . . . I have to reconcile my values to my career. And so there’s this uprising on behalf of faith and values, again, in Hollywood, which is really cool to see [and] be a part of.”
Who are the Erwin brothers?
The Erwin brothers started their career in the boring, painstaking videography that marks the beginning of many filmmaking careers. Their breakthrough projects were music videos for Christian musicians, but soon they moved beyond that realm (with several awards in their pockets).
No one expected I Can Only Imagine to become a smash hit, but it did. The breakout film reached over $83 million at the box office. Now, Jesus Revolution hits theaters with the funding and overwhelming force of the production company Lionsgate. According to Erwin, it’s a miracle that a company like Lionsgate would not only produce this movie but distribute it across the country.
Erwin shared that this movie brings families together. Viewers of all ages can relate to different characters. To support this new age of well-done Christian movies, we must show support in the theaters, and we encourage our audience to do so.
The message of Jesus Revolution for us
I’ve written with an insider’s perspective on Gen Z and have done a lot of thinking and research on them. Plainly, I think Gen Z lives in a time of rapid change and instability. Mark Sayers characterized it as a “gray zone,” a military term that defines a multifaceted way of doing war in uncertain environments.
In other words, Gen Z lives in a transition phase of culture. We’re not in a new culture; we’re in an in-between generation—and such deep instability invariably leads to a rise in stress, anxiety, uncertainty, and even depression.
Arguably, we’re much like young Gen Xers living in the 60s and 70s. Jon Erwin agreed in our interview that the similarities are striking. This means America may be due for another revival or awakening among young people.
And we already see glimmers of the potential for spiritual renewal at Asbury University, where their nonstop worship service continues to last after passing the two-week mark (although they recently put a halt to it on their campus).
Interestingly, Asbury was a crucial part of starting the Jesus Revolution in the 1970s.