It’s been fascinating to watch the rise, and evolution, of the faith-based movie over the years, and director Jon Erwin has been a part of that. He’s carved out a niche for himself, collaborating with his brother Andrew and focusing on true stories with a musical element, including “I Still Believe,” about Christian music star Jeremy Camp, and “I Can Only Imagine,” about the band MercyMe.
The Erwin brothers also co-directed the documentary “The Jesus Music,” which has a direct tie to his latest narrative feature film, “Jesus Revolution,” which focuses on the same topic, the Jesus movement that took place in Southern California in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
For “Jesus Revolution,” Jon Erwin co-directs with Brent McCorkle, the writer of “I Can Only Imagine,” the pair working from a script by Erwin and Jon Gunn adapted from a book by Greg Laurie and Ellen Vaughn. Laurie is, in fact, the subject of “Jesus Revolution,” played by Joel Courtney. But the film, which is part biopic, part period piece depicting a larger movement, juggles three different subjects while trying to tell the story of the Jesus movement, including Laurie, Laurie’s mentor, Chuck Smith, played by Kelsey Grammer, and hippie evangelist Lonnie Frisbee (Jonathan Roumie).
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As depicted in “Jesus Revolution,” Smith and Frisbee were huge influences on Laurie, a young teen growing up in Newport Beach, California, with a troubled mother (Kimberly Williams-Paisley). When a comely young hippie gal, Cathe (Anna Grace Barlow) breaks him out of military school, Greg dabbles in the drug-fueled hippie lifestyle, before a few near-death experiences find he and Cathe searching for something more, a different kind of high.
At the same time, Chuck Smith is struggling to reconcile his concern over the hippie movement with his daughter Janette’s (Ally Ioannides) rebellion, and his dwindling church attendance. When Janette brings home a wandering hippie, Lonnie Frisbee, Chuck initially balks, but soon realizes that Lonnie’s message is closer to Christ’s than he thought. It also has to help that with his beard, long hair and hand-painted cape, Lonnie looks a lot like the common depictions of (white) Jesus. Soon, Chuck’s preaching at Calvary Church is less fire and brimstone and more peace and love, with a rock band, Love Song, to boot.
The storylines converge when Lonnie brings in Greg, who becomes a young leader in the burgeoning Jesus movement, while the three men navigate the ups and downs that this growth entails. It’s an interesting enough story, with text at the end of the film claiming that it was the “largest spiritual awakening in America” and a Time magazine cover story, “The Jesus Revolution,” woven into the narrative as well.
Unfortunately, despite the interesting history, the film itself is a dry, scattered slog, neutered of all the thorny, contradictory details of the real story. Give Lonnie Frisbee’s Wikipedia page a quick scan to see just how much material the filmmakers excised from his fascinating, troubled life. Though the intent is to focus on Greg Laurie’s life, including flashbacks to his childhood, screenwriters Erwin and Gunn can’t quite pick a lane in their focus, giving us three rather shallow storylines about three different men, with often unnecessary details that bog down the film’s momentum — at two hours, it feels long.
“Jesus Revolution” is also, obviously, a completely uncritical portrait of the Jesus movement. Because this is a faith-based film, it simply presents the genesis of this “spiritual awakening” and explosion of these churches, without examining any of the potential dark sides or ramifications of how this evangelical Christian movement has impacted American culture and politics in the decades since.
Sepia-toned cinematography by Akis Konstantakopoulos gives “Jesus Revolution” the sheen of a 1960s-set period piece, and Courtney and Barlow capably hold up their end of the story of two Jesus freaks in love, but “Jesus Revolution” is clearly a piece of sanded-down marketing material for Calvary Churches and Greg Laurie’s Harvest Crusades, with all the burrs of real history buffed out, rendering the film a smooth, but crushingly dull project.