Jesus Revolution

It’s impossible to be whatever “objective” is with this film, much like the struggle I had writing about Isn’t It Romantic, which was directed by my friend and former film student Todd Strauss-Schulson. In that instance, this was a major film directed by someone I cared about, and therefore difficult to address without the “I’m so proud” card showing. In the case of Jesus Revolution, in many ways it’s the story—or at least the context of the story—of my spiritual life and the spiritual life of many of my closest friends. The film covers the Christian revival (primarily) among the young and disaffected—yes, and the hippies—of Southern California. The revival made its way to the East Coast, where in 1973 it caught up to me, my family, my future wife, and many folks that become life-long friends. To use a phrase I’ve been avoiding for years, I finally felt “seen” on the screen.

As a former film professor, I’ve struggled with the quality of Christian films over the last 20 years. Some of the screenplays are paint-by numbers, and the acting is, shall we say, not necessarily Oscar-worthy. Jesus Revolution won’t win any acting Academy Awards next year either, but every lead and most secondary characters are real actors (including Father of the Bride bride Kimberly Williams-Paisley) who give believable performances. Of course, the lead is Kelsey Grammer, who wears the character of Pastor Chuck Smith like a glove. If I recall correctly, I only caught him acting once. The rest of the time, he was the character.

To make things a little strange for many Christians, Jonathan Roumie, who plays Jesus on “The Chosen” series, has a major role here as a hippie-turned-believer. He’s a good actor and nails the part, but for those that know him from “The Chosen,” it takes a few moments to wrap one’s head around this new and flawed character.

The film has been described as being about Chuck Smith, the conservative pastor who opened the door to hippies and rode a revival like a surfer rides a wave, eventually becoming the head of the Calvary Chapel group of churches. That’s not really true. It’s really about something the film declares (and that I believe) is a move of God that involved imperfect people and still had a monumental impact on a generation. To help make that point clear, the film encompasses several stories at once, and covers a great deal of ground. Yes, it covers Chuck, his wife and daughter, and their struggles with what was happening around them. But it also includes the beginning of Lonnie Frisbee’s story, a story which became quite complex and convoluted, a future for which the film lays the groundwork, but doesn’t get lost in. It also covers a romantic love story, but a real one with a person that many of us from that time are familiar with. And lastly, the famous (spoiler alert) Time magazine cover article on the movement is featured as well. So it “hits home” with this writer and many other people who became Christians about that time because, in some ways, the film is our story as well.

Ironically, one of the problems I have with many Christian films of the past is the obviousness and “on-the-nose-ness” of some of the dialogue; it comes across as too far removed from what real folks say. Here the only part of the film that even comes close to that is the world of late-60’s California pre-Christian hippies, with “cool” and “dig it” making their appearance along with many similar expressions of the time. (And oh, the clothes!) But once I thought about it, that is exactly what a lot of people looked and sounded like back then. It was another world, and just because it might seem embarrassing now to those of us who lived through it doesn’t mean that an awkward-sounding reproduction of those times wasn’t “right on” (sorry/not sorry—I had to). What comes across as real and true, instead, are the conversations between Christians and the presentations from the pulpits. Yes, world, that is pretty close to the language we really used, and still do. It may seem corny and occasionally come off as preaching to the non-choir, but it’s quite real, and deeply meaningful.

Jon Erwin, this film’s co-director (with Brent McCorkle) was also the director of I Can Only Imagine, American Underdog, and Moms’ Night Out, among others, with his brother Andrew. Erwin and his colleagues have been steadily improving the “inspirational film” genre steadily throughout the years. Tackling this event and this many story lines would be a great challenge to any director, but this film solves those admirably.

Many film writers have rightly talked about how important it at least feels to be seen and represented on the screen. For me, seeing folks come to Christ and getting baptized pretty much ruins me (in the best way) whenever I see it, even as it does in my real life in my real church. So for me, there were too many moments that hit close to home for me to feel I can be artistically objective about the film. But as many writers have expressed, “if you want to understand [this group of people], seeing {such-and-such a film} would help you understand them and would broaden your mental and emotional horizons.

My wife and I walked out of the theater and said we had to tell our children that if they wanted to understand the context of our spiritual lives, they would have to see this film. Jesus Revolution tells of a move of God with intelligence and more honesty than I was expecting, weaving several stories together in a surprisingly coherent way. In its focus, it leaves out a number of elements that could have been covered, but which I believe the film is wise to not address. But for anyone wanting to understand this time and place, or even evangelical Christians in general, this film is a must-see.

About Mark DuPré

Retired (associate) pastor at a Christian church. Retired film professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. Husband for 45+ years to the lovely and talented Diane. Father to three children and father-in-law to three more amazing people. I continue some ministry duties even though retired from the pastoral position. Right now I'm co-writing a book, working on a documentary (screenwriter and assistant director), and creating a serious musical drama (I am writing the book and lyrics).
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