The “Jesus People” movement that peaked in the early ’70s, bringing Christianity to the counterculture and vice versa, has been largely forgotten. In the ensuing decades, American churches have increasingly been affiliated with social/political conservatism. That it wasn’t always so is vividly illustrated by “Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher,” David Di Sabatino’s straightforward, engrossing documentary about a well-buried chapter in recent evangelical history. Tale of Lonnie Frisbee‘s extraordinary (if brief) pulpit career is a fascinating one that could intrigue diverse niche auds — Christian, gay, ’60s nostalgics — if carefully marketed in limited release.
Raised amid somewhat bizarre commingled-family circumstances, the high-energy Frisbee had a classic ’60s Southern California Youth — experimenting with drugs, even appearing as a regular dancer on the TV music show “Shebang”–until 1967. Then 17, he had a vision of God in the desert, telling him of “the unique role” he was meant to play in spreading the Word.
Soon, Frisbee briefly joined a mission in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. He moved to a Christian commune and married Connie Bremer.
Then he crossed paths with Chuck Smith, a pastor who’d just relocated his fledgling operation in Costa Mesa, Calif. Invited to minister there, the long-haired, bearded, groovy-talking Frisbee fast became a huge draw, bringing unprecedented numbers of “dirty hippies” (as Smith first viewed them) and the merely curious to hear his sermons. The Calvary Chapel congregation grew from 200 to 2,000 within six months. It, and Frisbee, were featured in national media coverage of the flower-powered new “Jesus Movement.”
Though concurrent Oscar-winning 1972 documentary “Marjoe” (seen in excerpts) encouraged cynics by exposing one charismatic young preacher’s fraudulence, myriad observers still swear Frisbee was the real thing, truly anointed by God. Not only was he patently uninterested in exploiting his status financially or otherwise, he was also credited with phenomenal happenings, including healing powers.
Ordained in 1971, Frisbee was kept so busy by Smith, who disapproved of these more flamboyant Pentecostal excesses, that Frisbee’s marriage suffered. Trying to salvage their relationship, he and his wife left Calvary, an action Smith viewed as a betrayal.After unsuccessfully trying secular life, Frisbee wound up preaching at Vineyard Church, founded by fellow Calvary escapee John Wimber. Again, his brief tenure there played perhaps the deciding role in a still-extant ministry’s rapid initial growth spurt. And again, there was an unpleasant falling-out.
Up to this point, Di Sabatino avoids even hinting at a major story element that was as surprising to Frisbee’s colleagues then as it is to viewers now: Frisbee had secretly had occasional gay liaisons, on and off, for many years. This was kept so secret, in fact, that some close fellow church members still remain incredulous.
Discovery of one longer-term affair was responsible for Wimber tossing him out, just as Smith, Frisbee’s father and his stepfather had earlier. This led to Frisbee’s being written out of all official church histories — Smith’s autobiographical tome doesn’t even mention him.
Frisbee was understandably bitter toward the end of his life, feeling, as his ex-wife Connie puts it, “People constantly wanted to use him for his anointing and throw him away as a human being.”
Frisbee died of AIDS in 1993, at age 44. As a last insult, his funeral service saw Smith and others taking the podium to lament how the gifted Frisbee had fallen short of his potential.
This remarkable story is told in a fast-paced, workmanlike mix of contemporary interviews and archival material, including footage from such documentaries of the period as “The Son Worshippers.” Soundtrack music flashes back to “psychedelic Christianity,” including one song’s memorable lyric: “No more LSD for me/I met the man from Galilee.”
Pic’s viewpoint, while low-key, appears to be Christian in a progressive, inclusive way.
Narrator Michael Hoctor sounds like an old-school TV announcer, lending the film a slightly stiff tenor. Tech aspects are smooth.
Camera (color, DV), Di Sabatino; editor, Ron Zauneker; music, Larry Norman; sound, Zauneker. Reviewed at Mill Valley Film Festival, Oct. 16, 2005. Running time: 95 MIN.