A film review by Craig J. Koban May 9, 2023


2023, PG-13, 98 mins.

Joel Courtney as Greg Laurie  /  Jonathan Roumie as Lonnie Frisbee  /  Kimberly Williams-Paisley as Charlene  /  Anna Grace Barlow as Cathy   /  Kelsey Grammer as Chuck Smith  /  Julia Campbell as Kay

Directed by Jon Erwin and Brent McCorkle  /  Written by Joe Gunn and Joe Erwin, based on the book by Greg Laurie


I often go into faith-based movies with a mostly defensive-minded posture, essentially because (a) I'm definitely not the target demographic and (b) most films of this ilk usually aren't made to the highest qualitative standards.   

Having said that, I don't have to be the target audience for any film to like and/or appreciate it, especially if it goes beyond my expectations for said material.  JESUS REVOLUTION appealed to me primarily as a student of history, seeing as it delves into an evangelical Christian movement that began on the West Coast of the U.S. in the late 60s and early 70s that had a seismic impact on future denominations for decades afterwards.  More crucially, this film chronicles the unlikely association between the hippie movement and the Christian community, which culminated in a June 1971 cover story for  TIME magazine (featuring this film's title as its title). 

JESUS REVOLUTION represents a fairly fascinating period in American history and its production values are surprisingly robust (this film looks shockingly good at times, especially as far as its genre goes).  That, and its overall performances are a far cry better than what we usually get from these types of films.  Unfortunately, this is also a severely watered down affair with a lot of the rough edges smoothed over, which results in a final product that seems too sanitized for its own good.  It shouldn't be too surprising that a message-centered Christian focused effort would be aggressively clean cut to appease its core viewers, but I also think that there was a potent chance here to go deeper into this unique period of California's religious and social movement history, but somehow the makers here seem to sidestep some of the more troubling aspects of such a union, leaving JESUS REVOLUTION feeling like more of a squandered missed opportunity than a bad film. 

It's all too bad, because, as just mentioned, the ensemble cast here is quite solid, especially Kelsey Grammer - who arguably does career-high work here - playing Californian pastor Chuck Smith.  As the film opens in the late 60s, Chuck is struggling to keep a steady stream of attendees at his sermons, with most of his congregation being older and somewhat out of touch with the younger generation that seems to be flooding the area.  Chuck's daughter, Janette (Ally Ioannides), sees the new tide of the counter cultural revolution that's happening everywhere in the U.S..  Chuck soon finds himself coming to face to face with the hippie movement in the form of Lonnie (Jonathan Roumie), who's - yes - both a long hair, bearded, and Jesus-looking hippie and a devout Christian all the same who's hoping to spread the word of God to as many as he can in his flock.  In Lonnie's mind, Chuck can find a new calling with his church to allow a whole new influx of young people into it, but the pastor seems unwilling to do so, mostly because this intrusion of hippies really, really turns off his heavily aging congregation.  After some soul searching, Chuck agrees, and his congregation soon becomes hugely popular with this youth movement.  Concurrent to this is the story of Greg Laurie (Joel Courtney), a young military man smitten with Cathy (Anna Grace Barlow), a local teen who's also intertwined with the hippies and Christian movements.  As love struck Greg follows Cathy down this rabbit hole, he soon realizes that this was the right path for him all alone (it should also be noted that Laurie's book - that he would later pen - is what JESUS REVOLUTION is primarily based on).   



I found myself quite transfixed by the opening sections of this film when it comes to how these two diametrically opposed worlds find a way to overcome many obvious obstacles and differences to come together through a mutual belief in God.  For Chuck, this is a highly challenging prospect, largely stemming from the fact that this strange new world of hippies is completely foreign to him and has been largely labeled by many of his elderly followers as a troublemaking subculture.  For Lonnie, though, he already knows that for every one of him in his movement there are countless others, so all he has to do is convince Chuck to take a chance, trust him, and move forward, which the pastor does.  As more and more of Lonnie's cohorts start to come to Chuck's church and seek spiritual guidance, the more he begins to see them as equal partners in valuing God, even if it means alienating his tradition-obsessed and tunnel-visioned old timers.  This so-called Cavalry Chapel movement that resulted from this single evangelical church would later grow to astronomical proportions later on.  Part of the intrinsically compelling hook of JESUS REVOLUTION  is to witness the birth of this highly unusual marriage and how those die-hard traditionalists in the church refused to accept hippies because they didn't outwardly conform to the type of people that regularly came out on Sundays.  Obviously, credit needs to go to Chuck for having the wherewithal to cast out tradition and welcome newcomers with an open heart

There are also some unique focal point detours in JESUS REVOLUTION, like how the perspective oftentimes shifts from Lonnie and Chuck towards Greg himself, who has his share of family strife and drug dependency to soothe his hardships that he later gives up to peruse a spiritual path to redemption.  I would argue, though, that Greg's path in the film is easily the least interesting arc to be had (despite the fact that, yes, his book inspired this film).  His courtship of Cathy and his time with mood-altering drugs comes right out of the after-school movie of the week melodrama playbook, replete with overprotective parents, multiple emotional roadblocks, and so forth (that, and this film handles his drug adaptation in the most soft-pedaled and pedestrian fashion).  There's just an unrelenting aura of blandness to a lot of what actually transpires in JESUS REVOLUTION, especially when it comes to - when it boils right down to it - the PG-ification of many aspects of its subject matter.  The fusing of old-school Christians and free-loving radical hippies was not (I'm assuming) as tension-free and clean cut as it's presented here.   

There's so much more that JESUS REVOLUTION curiously and conveniently omits.  Beyond sidestepping the thornier aspects of drug dependency for one character, the film all but ignores some of the more controversial elements of Laurie himself , who would later maintain anti-homosexual beliefs (that are not referenced in the slightest here) while becoming a prominent evangelical pastor later in life.  Maybe I'm hopelessly overreaching in terms of what I was thinking a film like this with a clear agenda would contain, but there's no denying that it sort of fails to paint a warts and all portrait of its real life figures.  Obvious attempts have been made here by directors Jon Erwin and Brent McCorkle to make JESUS REVOLUTION as tame and viewer friendly as possible, which hurts the overall effectiveness of the film as a portal into history.  The hippies themselves are shown here - for the most part - as peace-loving , carefree God lovers without much in the way of intriguing layers or complexity.   

I know...I know...this is not a mainstream film.  This is a Christian production made for Christian audiences.  I get that.  However, I don't think it's too much to ask for a more multi-dimensional handling of this subject matter.  If one is looking for darker edges to this movement, then JESUS REVOLUTION will not appease you...like...at all.  In its defense, though, this film looks quite great and sports beautiful cinematography and has a much higher pedigree of production values than I usually associate with this sub-genre (it never looks cheap and disposable).  The film also deserves props for evoking its Christian messaging without coming off as obnoxiously preachy (I rarely felt that this film was - for lack of a better descriptor - sermonizing to me, but rather allowed me in as a eyewitness to history...so...yeah...not bad).  And the stars here are definitely on a whole other hemisphere than what I've seen in other faith-based films, with Grammer in particular giving his pastor quite a bit of psychological depth; he really invests in this character versus lazily phoning in his performance for a pay check.  Still, I was left with the nagging sensation that JESUS REVOLUTION could have been so much more than the sum of its good parts. People of faith will undoubtedly eat it up, to be sure, and for others on the outside looking in, they'll appreciate it for being competently made and acted.  But as a thorough and challenging expose on one of the largest religious movements in Californian counter-culture-era history, JESUS REVOLUTION's overall sermon lacks conviction.

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