The latest faith-based film looks & sounds great, but has the dramatic weight of a Time-Life music infomercial.
We’ve all been there. You turn on the radio and an incredible song is playing you’ve never heard before in your life. It’s a soaring rock anthem that chills you with goosebumps and makes you feel alive. Is this an Unforgettable Fire-era U2 song? Is this my new favorite band? The music ends, and the DJ jumps in with something like, “Praise be to God. That was Soul Eternal, with their hit single “Let the Spirit Thrive” only on your Christian Rock station 104.7!”
That feeling of being lured into religious messaging thanks to high level craftsmanship is similar to watching Jon Erwin and Brent McCorkle’s latest faith-based film, Jesus Revolution. The title may give away the game, but if you focus on the surface level, this seems like a professionally made secular film.
There’s strong performances from recognizable actors who aren’t Kirk Cameron. There’s gorgeous cinematography from Akis Konstantakopoulos that bathes the frame in West Coast sunlight in a way that’s closer to Licorice Pizza than God’s Not Dead. But dig one level under that surface and you get a thin, hollow sermon about the importance of hippies getting baptized.
Based on the true origin story of the “Jesus Freak” movement that blossomed in Southern California during the late 60s and early 70s, Jesus Revolution follows three people at the center of it. There’s the prim and proper Chuck Smith (Kelsey Grammer) who’s the pastor of Calvary Church, the soon-to-be home base for the movement. He begins the film watching a news report about a hippie war protest in pure horror, like he’s watching the bombing of Pearl Harbor instead of a normal, constitutionally protected demonstration. He can’t believe the audacity of these faithless weirdos.
That’s until he’s introduced to Lonnie Frisbee (Jonathan Roumie), a long haired eccentric who looks like JC himself (keep in mind this actor has already played Jesus on TV). He preaches the Word of God, but in a light, positive tone that’s perfect for those Haight-Ashbury heathens protesting the Vietnam War. He brings along his bohemian friends and through the power of song and love, they convince Smith there’s something to this new youthful spiritual awakening, and it’s not just the drugs.
Finally, there’s our third protagonist, a young man named Greg Laurie (Joel Courtney), who runs away from his depressed, alcoholic mother. This movie comes from the Hillbilly Elegy school of blaming the mother for every issue the male protagonist faces.
Greg joins up with a small hippie commune and descends into a life of sin, including several tame scenes where he drops acid that have as much impact as a D.A.R.E. assembly. He finally reaches the light at a concert when he hears Timothy Leary give a speech about finding God. I don’t think the father of modern psychedelic drugs had the Bible in mind, but the film goes with it.
The hippies in this film are a symbol for the outcasts and freaks of any era. There’s a nice sentiment here that we should always make room in our hearts for the rejects of society, but that idea is deflated when the film depicts every hippie as a wild-eyed drug addict who crash their vans in oncoming traffic up until the moment they decide to accept Jesus into their hearts.
[D]ig one level under that surface and you get a thin, hollow sermon about the importance of hippies getting baptized.
There’s even a quick scene at Greg’s high school where a Black student starts to speak about how slave owners used Christianity to defend their horrific subjugation of humans, only for the film to cut away halfway through the speech, like it didn’t want to hear what he had to say. We can show skepticism of Christianity here, but not that kind of skepticism.
I never want to yuck anyone’s spiritual yum. I’m positive the Jesus Freak movement helped many people, and the journey of finding peace in a force larger than yourself is admirable and beautiful. I just wish this film made me feel it more. All the scenes where a character is being moved by the Scripture expects us to also be moved just because there are stirring synths playing with lots of lens flare in the frame. It’s not enough for the director to point a camera on Greg’s face as Lonnie talks about how hip God is maaaan to make us feel like we’re in the characters’ POV.
A reason why most faith-based movies fail as movies is because they never depict coming to Jesus in a unique or interesting way. Maybe these producers need to utilize more genre filmmaking. Erwin’s previous directorial effort, American Underdog, isn’t a classic, but it’s a religiously tinted movie that’s able to make the proselytizing go down easier by being a genuinely inspirational sports film.
Rose Glass’s Saint Maud is much more effective at portraying the ecstasy of spiritual rapture through the lens of psychological horror. I felt closer to God during that disturbing A24 horror movie than I did at any point in this film about an actual spiritual awakening.
The one positive takeaway from this is the music. I’m not talking about the many era-popular songs they shove in there, which makes it seem like someone found the Forrest Gump soundtrack in a used CD bin and thought, “We’ll just go with this.” I’m talking about the diegetic music that the characters play in the film. Along with the origins of the new “Jesus Freak” movement, we see the birth of modern Christian rock, called “Jesus Music” as depicted here in its infancy.
There’s a band in the film that plays spiritual music for the Calvary Church which turns out to be slightly modernized versions of songs by Love Song, an actual Christian rock group. Like the Christian music that fools you on the radio, they’re all bangers. Unfortunately, it’s only the tunes that make me feel the spirit in Jesus Revolution.
Jesus Revolution is now playing in theaters.