David Di Sabatino Is Drawn to Charismatic Christians. But Nothing Prepared Him for Larry Norman

Rock Angel
Garden Grove filmmaker David Di Sabatino is drawn to charismatic but damaged Christians. But nothing prepared him for Larry Norman

Three years ago, David Di Sabatino was understandably excited when Larry Norman, “the Father of Christian Rock Music,” e-mailed him to say the film Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher was “beautiful.”

“That was a kick to me,” says Di Sabatino, sitting at the kitchen table in his Garden Grove home on a sunny mid-September afternoon—seven months after Norman succumbed to heart failure at age 60. “Here was a guy that I spent a lot of time in my youth thinking had hung the moon.”

John Gilhooley
John Gilhooley

Norman and Lonnie Frisbee had been friends, household names among Jesus freaks during the rise of born-again Christianity in the 1970s and, in their own separate (mysterious) ways, charismatic young idols who mesmerized masses before ultimately being shunned by church establishment. Di Sabatino had sent Norman a rough cut of the documentary that did not yet include music. He knew songs from Norman’s early-1970s glory days would be perfect for the Frisbee soundtrack.

But as the veteran musician and newbie filmmaker were in talks about the soundtrack, Di Sabatino says he discovered music from that era belonged not to Norman, but rather the giant EMI label. Perhaps naively, Di Sabatino went on to add some early Norman tracks to the version of Frisbee that hit the festival circuit, confident he’d later secure EMI’s permission. As those who caught the documentary’s premiere at the 2005 Newport Beach Film Festival know, Norman’s catchy music and snidely sung, clever lyrics often moved the onscreen action along better than the film’s narrator.

Based on what until then had been positive dealings with Norman and the musician’s “profound influence” not just on Christian music but also mainstream pop culture, Di Sabatino believed he had found the subject for his next “Bible story,” which is what he calls his films about modern-day believers who exhibit the traits of figures from the Good Book. “I was always enamored with these kinds of people,” he says. “They always asked the larger questions; they were willing to go farther.”

Norman, whom Di Sabatino found “charming,” seemed thrilled about the prospect of a feature-length documentary on his amazing life and music, whose fans include U2, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, John Mellencamp and Charles Thompson IV/Black Francis/Frank Black.

But Larry’s brother Charles has a different take on the motivation behind the film: He vows that he and his lawyers will be watching it closely.

“Little did I know what I was getting into,” Di Sabatino says. “I’m still mystified by it.”

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One way to pry Di Sabatino away from the editing bay he has built in the garage of his Leave It to Beaver-esque two-story home—the only one on the block whose driveway features a silver mini-van with a Toronto Maple Leafs insignia on the side—is to get him talking about Christianity today.

Sitting at the dinner table with his bubbly stepdaughter drawing pictures at his side, Di Sabatino says he is bothered that too many Christians smugly posture “like they have all the answers.” He believes “life gets harder when you embrace Jesus Christ, not easier; his ideals are hard to live up to.” He was raised in the Pentecostal church in Toronto, where he attended Eastern Pentecostal Bible College, later renamed Master’s College and Seminary. Studying religious history, Di Sabatino wrote a highly respected book about the nondenominational, born-again Christianity that rose to national prominence alongside the flower-power generation of the 1960s and 1970s, The Jesus People: An Annotated Bibliography and General Resource (Greenwood-Heinemann Publishing, 1999).

Among the charismatic believers he discovered was a young hippie preacher with a far-out name: Lonnie Frisbee. Di Sabatino figured he could parlay his Frisbee research into a second book, but when he showed a colleague what he had, he was told, “That’s not a book. That’s a film.” The idea for Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher was born.

Though Di Sabatino, who’d relocated to Lake Forest, had no training as a filmmaker, he decided to take it on. “It turned out to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” he conceded. The documentary, which cost $40,000 to make, premiered at the 2005 Newport Beach Film Festival to an enthusiastic crowd packed into Lido Theater. Because the Frisbee saga was not just a compelling Bible story, but also a compelling Orange County story, the Weekly wrote up the film a month and a half before the premiere (“The First Jesus Freak,” March 3, 2005) and again days before the festival screening (“Ears On Their Heads But They Don’t Hear,” April 14, 2005).

Frisbee depicts Calvary Chapel’s straight-laced founder, Chuck Smith, who conducted services out of a tent in Costa Mesa in the late 1960s, being urged by his tearful wife to reach out to those lost hippie souls on the streets. So one of the Smiths’ kids swooped up the first dirty, bearded hippie he found one night and plopped him in front of Pastor Chuck. Lonnie Frisbee, fresh off an LSD trip, quickly bonded with the preacher, became ordained at Calvary and joined Smith in dunking thousands of young converts in the baptismal waters off Little Corona beach. With Frisbee serving as the face of the Jesus People Movement, Calvary Church membership swelled. Frisbee went on to play a part in the dramatic growth of another Orange County church, John Wimber’s Vineyard Church, and he influenced Greg Laurie, the founding pastor of the Riverside-based Harvest Crusade. But Frisbee maintained the official histories of these churches ignored the hippie preacher because he had admitted to gay trysts before and after being “saved.” He died of AIDS in 1993 at age 43.

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