Jesus Revolution (United States, 2023)

February 22, 2023
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Jesus Revolution Poster

Jesus Revolution takes a fascinating period of American history – the hippie movement and its associated fallout within the Christian community – and transforms it into a bland, TV movie-of-the-week experience. While neither badly made (the period detail, for example, is strong) nor unwatchable, there’s the sense of both a missed opportunity and a commitment to “family friendliness” over truth. Anything remotely sexual is whitewashed with hippies being defined primarily as young people who have decided to drop out of society and experiment with drugs. Their search for spiritual fulfillment is shown only through the lens of those who comprised the group of so-called “Jesus freaks” – completely ignoring larger segments of the hippie population who followed the tenets of various other religions.

The film’s myopia is understandable – it has been made by a Christian production group and is targeted not at a mainstream audience but at church-goers. The movie focuses on characters who were instrumental in the genesis of the Cavalry Chapel movement – something that started with a single evangelical church in the late 1960s and has grown to nearly 2000 nationwide locales in a span of less than 60 years. Unfortunately, Jesus Revolution becomes so enamored with the rather lackluster lives of the characters that it loses sight of the bigger picture. One of the most fascinating aspects of the era – the struggle of mixing mainstream, old-school Christian mores with the values espoused by the hippies (which typically included free love) – is reduced to little more than a footnote.

Jesus Revolution has the level of cast one might expect from a made-for-TV movie. The biggest name, and the actor who gives the most polished performance, is Kelsey Grammar. Grammar plays Chuck Smith, the old-school pastor of an old-school church who becomes convinced that the way to expand Jesus’ message is to embrace the hippies rather than shunning them. Grammar’s interpretation of Smith is that of a smart tactician as well as a man of God. It’s an idealized version of the real man whose anti-homosexual beliefs are well documented and whose end-of-the-world predictions predated those of the disgraced Harold Camping. (In the late 1970s, he wrote that the world would end in 1981.)

Other than Grammar, the only somewhat recognizable name in the cast is Kimberly Williams-Paisley, the now-married (hence the hyphenated last name) woman who played the daughter in the Father of the Bride remake and its subsequent sequel. The other primary players are Joel Courtney as the central figure, Greg Laurie, a young man whose spiritual quest leads him to the movement; Anna Grace Barlow as Catherine, his free-spirited girlfriend; and Jonathan Roumie as Lonnie Frisbee, the charismatic preacher who “converts” Smith to the value of expanding his congregation. All three have sizeable filmographies filled primarily with episodic TV work. Their performances – at least a notch below that of Grammer’s – are evidence of why none has thus far “broken out.”

When the movie opens in 1968, Chuck Smith presides over a small congregation in his Costa Mesa chapel. Smith’s daughter introduces him to Frisbee, a wandering Pentecostal evangelist who travels the nation with his wife, Connie, spreading the good word. Smith brings Frisbee into his fold and opens the door of his church to the hippies who flock to see and hear the newcomer. Calvary Chapel becomes a Christian commune that attracts young people far and wide. Two of them are Greg Laurie and his girlfriend, who eventually become key cogs in Smith’s wheel. In addition to proving himself to be vital to Calvary Chapel’s expansion, Laurie must demonstrate to Catherine’s father that he is more than a ne’er-do-well so he can ask for her hand in marriage.

Jesus Revolution doesn’t feel like an inherently theatrical venture. Although the production design is impressive for the limited budget and the soundtrack includes some immediately recognizable pop/rock songs from the era, there’s nothing in the film that screams “big screen.” For those who see it, however, the narrative is numbingly agreeable, with likable characters working through a drama with no real teeth. It’s forgettable and mushy but digestible. There’s no rule that Christian-leaning movies have to be so limp and vanilla. Mel Gibson’s controversial The Passion of the Christ was anything but that, courting an NC-17 rating with the graphic nature of its violence. Still, it’s doubtful that Jesus Revolution aspires to appeal to anyone outside of its core audience. It feels like it was made with members of the Calvary Chapel Association in mind (in fact, pastors from that denomination were invited to comment on work prints of the film to suggest changes). For them, this will likely hit the cinematic sweet spot. For everyone else, it’s at best a late-night, streaming time-waster.

Jesus Revolution (United States, 2023)

Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Home Release Date: 2023-04-25
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1