Lonnie Frisbee might have looked like Jesus–what with his long hair, thick beard, ready smile and bright eyes. But Lonnie was a hippie from San Francisco in the late ‘60s. And before a movement he helped launch swept the nation in that turbulent era, Lonnie wasn’t the kind of guy most churches would have invited in with open arms.
But God works in mysterious ways, as the saying goes. And so it was that one day while walking down a coastal highway, a young woman named Janette stopped to give the hippie a ride. Janette, it turns out, was a pastor’s kid on the verge of punting on Christianity altogether.
The reason? Her dad, Chuck Smith, an aging, struggling pastor straight out of central casting. Janette wants him to open his eyes, to see that maybe the hippie movement’s countercultural excesses cloak deeper longings that aren’t as threatening as they might appear. “What I’m saying is that they want peace and love. Isn’t that what you want?” she asks her dad as they watch the evening news together.
“I think these kids need help,” her mom, Kay, replies.
“What they need is a bath,” Chuck quips sarcastically. “I don’t know if they can be helped.”
“Sure, and there’s the problem,” Janette retorts. “You’re passing judgment on people you know nothing about. You’ve never even met a hippie.”
“I’ll tell you what,” her dad says, “when God walks in here to bring me a hippie, I’ll ask Him what it’s all about, because I don’t understand.”
“Maybe that’s why your church is so empty,” Janette says, dropping the proverbial mic on her way out the door.
That’s when Janette providentially encounters Lonnie, a stereotypical hippie who’s wandered down the coast from Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. Except for that one important detail: Lonnie loves Jesus. And he can’t stop telling others about Him—including Chuck.
“There is an entire generation right now searching for God,” Lonnie says. “I know we must seem a little strange. But if you look a little deeper, if you look with love, you’ll see a bunch of kids that are searching for all the right things, just in all the wrong places.”
By the time Lonnie Frisbee is done speaking, describing “his people” as “sheep without a shepherd, chasing hard after lies,” Pastor Chuck Smith is silent. His teary eyes tell of a man who has encountered the Spirit’s unexpected movement in an equally unexpected form: a homeless hippie follower of Jesus whose passion will change Chuck Smith’s life—and the lives of thousands of others, including teens Greg Laurie and Cathe Martin—forever.
There’s much that’s positive and redemptive here, but virtually all of that content is interwoven deeply with spiritual elements that I’ll talk about in more detail below.
Jesus Revolution is, at the core, a dramatized depiction of what happens when revival breaks out. Lonnie Frisbee doesn’t look like what Chuck Smith and many other “square” Christians think a follower of Jesus should look like. But Chuck listens to Lonnie, takes him seriously and bravely opens his church to others involved in the suddenly burgeoning Jesus movement.
Chuck takes a great deal of criticism from more socially conservative members of his church, several of whom leave the church over Chuck’s hospitality and openness to new hippie converts.
One of the most moving scenes in the film is when Chuck delivers a powerful sermon declaring his determination to make the church a place that can be home to anyone, no matter what their background or appearance or experience. He begins by talking about visiting the Statue of Liberty: “’Give me your tired and your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.’ And as I read those words, I thought, ‘Well, that’s Christianity, isn’t it?’”
He continues: “That’s the essence of it: An invitation to the broken. Jesus was very friendly with the outcasts. … This place, it is yours. If you feel like you’re an outcast, join us here. If you feel like you’re misunderstood and judged, this is where you belong. If you feel ashamed or trapped in something you’ve done or are doing, you find forgiveness and freedom right here.”
Indeed, the story of Jesus Revolution is a story about people finding freedom, deliverance and peace in Christ. Greg Laurie and Cathe Martin are among the many on that journey, and we also watch as they deal with their own struggles with their past and parents. Greg is slower to come to faith that Cathe is, but they both make it there eventually.
As the church’s fame grows, a reporter named Josiah from a national magazine chronicles the story and talks to Greg about his own hope that what’s happening is really true.
On a darker note, Lonnie becomes increasingly preoccupied with fame, his role in the movement and his need to be at the front of things. That’s combined with a growing prophetic role in which he seemingly knows things about needy congregants, then boldly prays for them. At first, it seems like Lonnie’s miraculous and prophetic interaction with those needy people is a gift from God. As the story unfolds, though, Chuck grows weary of Lonnie’s “theatrics,” as he calls them, saying that what’s happening has become more about Lonnie than a work of the Spirit. Lonnie is defiant but also chastened, ultimately leaving the revival with his wife, Connie, to move to Florida.
Multiple scenes depict baptism in the Pacific Ocean. We see many different prayers for people as well as worship services that include brand-new (at the time) expressions of worship that drew from popular guitar-oriented styles of the day.
At a concert featuring singer Janis Joplin and LSD pioneer Timothy Leary, we see many hand-drawn signs featuring the ‘60s countercultural rallying cry, “Make Love, Not War.”
While telling his story to Chuck Smith, Lonnie alludes to the sexual promiscuity of the hippie culture, saying, “Man, we did everything and maybe everyone.” In the movie, Lonnie is married to a woman named Connie, though it’s clear that they’re having some marital strife. Those who dig further into Lonnie’s story will learn that he was sexually abused as a child and secretly struggled with homosexuality until he died of complications related to AIDS in 1993. The film doesn’t address this part of Lonnie’s story, but it does allude to the fact that Lonnie had embraced the hippie culture’s view of sexuality before finding Jesus.
A church member in Chuck’s congregation complains about young women’s inappropriate clothing in services, calling out their “halter tops” specifically. We do see a few women wearing typical Southern California beachwear, but nothing too immodest. The most revealing outfit in the whole movie is worn by an actress in a movie version of Romeo and Juliet, which we see projected onto a theater screen.
Greg and Cathe kiss a couple of times, and we see them cuddling together after dropping acid, as well as lying down together holding hands at the Janis Joplin concert. But further physical intimacy between them before they become Christians isn’t depicted or clearly suggested.
Greg’s single mother, Charlene, is a woman desperately trying to find meaning and fulfillment in a series of seemingly brief and/or casual relationships with men she tends to pick up at the bar. It’s clear that this has been her pattern for many years, but we don’t actually see any intimacy between her and these partners.
It’s not sexual at all, but we see a shirtless Lonnie baptizing people in the Pacific Ocean. Another shirtless man is shown, too. A woman in a modest bikini is shown as well.
One character driving drunk is involved in a violent car accident that leaves a scar on her face. Another driver under the influence of, presumably, LSD drives recklessly and very nearly causes another accident.
Cathe calls Greg an “idiot” (albeit somewhat playfully) under her breath. In the iconic 1970 song “War” by Edwin Star, we hear one use of the phrase, “Good God, y’all.”
The counterculture of the 1960s and ‘70s famously embraced psychedelic drugs, with LSD being the drug of choice for hallucinogenic and “mind-expanding” trips. At a Janis Joplin concert, LSD godfather Timothy Leary (whom some call “The Prophet”) speaks about the supposed powers of psychedelics to lead users to divine truth. “The psychedelic experience is a confrontation with the divine,” he opines. “It’s a spiritual awakening. You come back, and you define god the best you can.”
And then he drops another catchphrase from the era, one that alludes to LSD use: “So turn on, tune in and drop out. Start a new sequence of behavior that matches your vision. Be reborn!”
Leary’s evangelism for his drug of choice is followed by an airplane dropping acid tabs from the sky on concertgoers, who eagerly grab them. (They feature a white rabbit holding the rectangular tabs of the drug, a nod to Jefferson Airplane’s hit song about drug use, “Go Ask Alice.”)
Greg and Cathe drop acid at the concert, apparently for the first time. We see Cathe’s hand coming away from her mouth, but we don’t actually witness her putting the paper-like tablet in her mouth. Both Greg and Cathe have an ecstatic experience of the drug together, completely blissed out.
It’s the first scene depicting such drug use. Several more follow, but it’s clear that Greg’s experience with the drug is increasingly erratic, as it elicits hard memories of his childhood. We also see that Greg and his perpetually stoned friends are more and more debilitated by their drug use. Greg’s highs are represented by halo-like camera shots that suggest his impairment.
At a party where everyone is drunk and high (we see alcohol and smoking, and we hear references to marijuana and speed being used as well), Cathe’s sister, Dodie, passes out, falls to the floor and nearly chokes to death on her own vomit. Greg knows to roll her on her side so that she can breathe. That experience is the first big catalyst prompting Cathe to turn away from the drug counterculture.
During Timothy Leary’s speech praising LSD, we also hear Lonnie recounting his own experience with the drug to Chuck Smith—an important and meaningful critique from firsthand experience. “Man, we thought acid was going to save the world. But that was a lie—as much of a lie as what we were railing against.” Lonnie also suggests that drugs and sexual promiscuity failed to deliver on their promise to provide meaning and truth: “I kept searching, searching, and I just finally got to the end of it, and there was still a void.”
Elsewhere, Greg’s mother, Charlene, is clearly an alcoholic constantly on the verge of passing out from drunkenness (and occasionally doing so). We see Greg (as an adult) take a lit cigarette from her hand after she passes out on her bed in one scene. In another, a young Greg takes a glass of alcohol from her hand after she passes out on the couch.
As mentioned, Lonnie grows increasingly erratic and self-centered as the story progresses.
On June 21, 1971, TIME magazine published a cover story titled “The Jesus Revolution,” chronicling the rise of Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel church in the early years of that decade. It featured a psychedelic portrait of Jesus on the cover, an image that didn’t look like most any version of Jesus anyone had ever seen. Indeed, the young people flocking to Him from the counterculture didn’t look like most people’s vision of good Christians either.
In Jesus Revolution, codirectors Jon Erwin and Brent McCorkle tell this remarkable story. And they do so in a way that will powerfully move those of us who already know Jesus and in a way that might just move some people who don’t yet know Him to take a step toward Him.
Veteran actor Kelsey Grammer’s depiction of Chuck Smith is as resonant and profound as anything he’s done in his career. Meanwhile, Jonathan Roumie—best known for his depiction of Jesus in the TV series The Chosen—powerfully embodies Lonnie Frisbee’s passion and flaws, ultimately influencing and shaping the life of a young man who’d go on to become one of the premiere pastors and preachers of his generation, Greg Laurie.
Together, they remind us of core gospel truths: Jesus came to seek and save the lost, to release the captives from the struggles that bind them, to fill our hearts with abundant life that no experience on Earth can match.
Speaking of those experiences, the story skillfully suggests some of the chemical excesses of hippie culture without ever glorifying or glamorizing them. Instead, we see how these experiential quests for truth and meaning apart from God ultimately fail to fill us as promised.
I’ve seen a lot of Christian movies in my nearly two decades working at Plugged In. Jesus Revolution is among the best. It’s worth your time and your money, and it may just be a storytelling catalyst to spark a new chapter of your own spiritual journey and relationship with Jesus Christ.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.