Jesus Revolution Producer: ‘I’ve Never Seen Such a Profound Response to a Movie’
Jon Erwin happened to be doing research for another movie when he stumbled on the iconic cover of Time Magazine from June 21, 1971. A copy in good condition goes for about $2,000 on eBay today, but Jon managed to snatch one up in 2015 — years before his movie made the psychedelic Jesus a collectors’ item. Back then, making a film about the 1970s revival known as The Jesus Revolution was a distant dream. Today, it’s a blockbuster reality — one that continues to exceed everyone’s expectations, in the box office and real life.
The news that “Jesus Revolution” crossed the $39 million mark this past weekend may have been a shock to Hollywood, but to Erwin — the movie’s writer, producer, and director — it was further proof that he’d happened upon something special eight years ago. He’d been working on another true story, “Woodlawn,” when he was “awestruck” by the parallels between the hippie movement’s desperation and the desperation of today.
“I’m a filmmaker. I’m curious by nature,” he told Family Research Council President Tony Perkins on “Washington Watch.” “And so I read this article. At the time, you couldn’t find it online. It was this 10-page spread about what God was doing at an incredibly similar time of hopelessness and despair. … And the more I read, the more I felt: Can this happen in my generation? Can this happen in my life?” At 40, Jon said, “nothing like this has ever happened to us.” “And the more I studied it the more I wanted to make a movie.”
Erwin was set to make “I Can Only Imagine” next, based on MercyMe lead singer Bart Millard, with other true stories like “I Still Believe” (Jeremy Camp) and “American Underdog” (Kurt Warner) on the horizon. Carving out time for another project was tricky. By the time “Jesus Revolution” was released, it was the longest he’d ever worked on a movie.
But in the end, Jon pointed out, it was a testament to “God’s perfect timing.” “That the movie came out as revivals are happening around the nation is so cool. And I love all the movies that we’ve gotten to make, but I’ve never seen such an incredibly profound response to a movie and, and lives changed as people watch it. So it’s a privilege to get to bring this movie to the screen.”
A stellar cast, led by Kelsey Grammar (“Fraser”) and Jonathan Roumie (“The Chosen”), team up to reach a 70s generation that’s trying to find meaning in sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Despite his initial reluctance, Pastor Chuck Smith’s (Grammar) stodgy church is overtaken by barefoot hippies who follow evangelist Lonnie Frisbee’s (Roumie) invitation to stop searching and give their lives to Jesus.
The movement explodes, packing out Southern California’s Calvary Chapel and eventually moving to a big white tent where thousands come to know Christ, including Greg Laurie (Joel Courtney), who wrote the book the movie is based on. Laurie’s incredible story, from a tragic childhood to a spiritual awakening that led him to found Harvest Christian Fellowship, has resonated with audiences and critics (who gave the film an A+ CinemaScore rating).
For Erwin, one day in particular stood out. “[It was] by far the favorite moment I’ve had on set — and I think you feel it in the movie. You know,” he told Perkins, “it takes several miracles to make a movie. But I’ve never felt a day like the day we shot the baptisms in this movie. We thought it was very important to go back to the real Pirate’s Cove [where Smith and Frisbee baptized so many people]. And we did. And for a film, that is a very difficult place to go. It’s like a crater, very jagged rocks. You have to go up and over to get onto that location. … [But] I’ve never felt anything like it. We all felt it that day. There was a level of spiritual power there that I’ve never experienced in my filmmaking career before.”
At one point, they were filming with about 400 extras, and Roumie “came up out of the water and said, ‘This is real for people. … People are coming up to me and saying, I want to be baptized for real. I’ve just made a decision for Christ.’”
While they were shooting the part with actor Joel Courtney in the water, Jon said he was stunned to find out that “the real Greg Laurie was baptizing a member of the cast that he had struck up a conversation with a couple hundred feet away and none of us even knew [about it]. … I think you feel it when you watch the movie. But the power that is in the movie we felt on that day.”
Grammer, arguably the most well-known cast member, hasn’t been shy since the film’s release about the role faith plays in his life. “I’ve had some tragic times,” he admitted in an interview with USA Today. “I’ve wrestled with those and worked my way through them — sometimes rejecting faith, sometimes rejecting God even… But I have come to terms with it and found great peace in my faith and in Jesus.” If Hollywood doesn’t like it, Grammar shrugs. “It’s not cavalier — Jesus made a difference in my life. That’s not anything I’ll apologize for.”
In the meantime, Erwin still marvels at the impact the film is having. He’s seen videos of people praying outside the movie, or getting baptized in fountains outside the theaters — or in lakes the next day. “Not many people know this,” he told Perkins, “but 1972, which was the culminating year of the Jesus Movement was the most baptisms ever recorded in a single year, at least by the Southern Baptists. So wouldn’t it be cool if that happened again and we beat that record?”
Suzanne Bowdey serves as editorial director and senior writer at The Washington Stand.