I will always remember sitting in a near front row seat of the now torn down Arlington Theater on Indy's eastside, an old school moviehouse turned music hall that was in its final days when my wounded soul begrudgingly joined a friend for a Christian punk rock concert by a band known as The Altar Boys. I was an undeniable punk rocker myself at the time, a wheelchair user and social misfit with eight earrings, purple hair, and a lifetime full of wounds.
I was transformed.
For the first time, at least for the first time in a long time, I'd felt like God had genuinely met me where I was at and I had a revolutionary experience that continues in many ways to define my faith journey to this day. I had been looking for all the right things in all the wrong places. When I found the Christian punk community, I began to discover a love I had never imagined.
While it's not necessary to have lived through the 70's revival of radical and newfound love portrayed in Jon Erwin and Brent McCorkle's Jesus Revolution, I can't help but think the film will have a special place in the hearts of those who experienced this transformative time that would become known as the greatest spiritual awakening in American history. Jesus Revolution centers itself around a young Greg Laurie (Joel Courtney), a young man being raised by his struggling mother, Charlene (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), and himself looking for all the right things but in all the wrong places.
Laurie, whom we now know as the founding pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship, is portrayed here in his young adult years severely traumatized by his past yet seemingly open to another way of living. Descending on sunny Southern California alongside a sea of young people, Laurie and many others would seem to redefine truth through all means of liberation. When he inadvertently meets Lonnie Frisbee (Jonathan Roumie), a charismatic hippie/street preacher, and Pastor Chuck Smith (Kelsey Grammer), whose struggling church's doors are thrown wide open to the growing stream of hippies, free lovers, and wanderers who would come to define this Jesus Revolution, Laurie's life is forever changed amidst this spiritual awakening grounded in rock and roll, radical love, an outstretched faith, and a revival that changes the world and that Time Magazine would come to dub a Jesus Revolution.
The latest film to come out of the Kingdom Story Company/Lionsgate exclusive partnership that has given us such crowdpleasers as I Can Only Imagine and I Still Believe, Jesus Revolution continues their commitment of bringing hope-filled, true, and inspiring content to the big screen. Co-director Jon Erwin, whose career I've followed since his Heartland Film Festival appearance in my hometown of Indianapolis with the 9/11 documentary The Cross and the Towers in 2006, has long had a remarkable ability for telling honest stories through a faith-based lens.
Working alongside Brent McCorkle, he does it once again with Jesus Revolution.
Jesus Revolution captures the exhilaration of a gospel that grew in the unlikeliest of places and yet it's also a film that realistically portrays the interpersonal and societal traumas and dramas that fueled the need for a great awakening and a transformed contemporary church. Jesus Revolution is a genuinely entertaining film, both undeniably faith-based yet also determined to live into the film's tagline that "When you open your heart, there's room for everyone." To this end, Jesus Revolution largely softens some of the tensions that would grow to exist between the film's three central characters and the film ends well before it needs to tackle any of the more controversial aspects of Pastor Smith or Frisbee. In most ways, I must say, I actually love both of these decisions as it allows the focus to be maintained on the movement itself.
While largely set in the 70's, Jesus Revolution seems ideally timed alongside a Hollywood increasingly embracing of faith-based cinema and headlines announcing the Asbury revival. With social tensions and an increasingly fractured church, the question "Could the time be right for another great awakening?" seems palpably in the cinematic air throughout Jesus Revolution. These are, undeniably, issues from the past that remain relevant today.
Joel Courtney (Super 8, The Kissing Booth) captures the layered complexities of Greg Laurie's young adult years, emotionally riveting in his heartbreaking encounters with his mother and achingly vulnerable in his transformation once he experiences guidance, nurture, and tenderness. Jonathan Roumie's turn as Lonnie Frisbee, who would join Pastor Chuck in helping to start Calvary Chapel and then later help plant the Vineyard movement, could have so easily been one-note but instead runs the gamut of emotions as a gifted and charismatic preacher who would eventually lean more heavily into the charismatic, pentecostal-like side of Christianity. Roumie, who portrays Jesus on The Chosen, is fiercely charismatic yet also shades Lonnie with personality quirks and humanity.
As Pastor Chuck, credited with starting the Calvary Chapel movement, Kelsey Grammer gives one of his best cinematic performances in years. Seemingly in awe of this hippie street preacher who his somewhat wayward daughter (a wonderful Ally Ioannides) brings into his life, Grammer brings vividly to life the struggles of a pastor trying to balance his church's more elder, "giving" members with these spirited youths who bring something special if not particularly a boost in finances (at least initially). Grammer's performance here is incredibly spirit-filled with wisdom and grace, insight and quiet charisma. Grammer reportedly replaced Jim Gaffigan in the role and he definitely makes it his own and turns it into something special.
Anna Grace Barlow is a scene-stealer as Cathe, the literal "other side of the tracks" girl Greg first encounters while traveling down the wrong road before the two discover faith and the seeds for their own radical love that begins to heal past hurts. Those hurts, vividly brought to life by Kimberly Williams-Paisley as Greg's mother Charlene, are more implied than realized here but are fleshed out through the depth of Williams-Paisley's performance that plays out honestly without ever skewing the film's overall optimistic and hope-filled tone.
It's that tone that turns Jesus Revolution into one of the best faith-based flicks in quite some time. Weaving together a remarkable soundtrack and luminous lensing by Akis Konstantakopoulos, Jesus Revolution carries with it a Cameron Crowe spirit that I thought of over and over and over again throughout the film. Much as is often true for Crowe, Jesus Revolution takes a wonderful ensemble and creates a seamless tapestry of people, places, and events that are beautiful to behold and impossible to forget.
Jesus Revolution will make you laugh. Jesus Revolution will make you cry. Jesus Revolution will make you want to build a longer table and be a better human. Jesus Revolution will call you out and, yes, Jesus Revolution will call you back.
With hope and kindness as its guide, Jesus Revolution tackles difficult issues and then whispers in our ears "Love one another."
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic