By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Following a solid run on the festival circuit, Frisbee made the leap to PBS, picking up a regional Emmy award nomination in the San Francisco Bay Area market and making Di Sabatino back that $40,000 and more. Variety praised it as an “engrossing documentary,” and Erik Davis, author of The Visionary State on California’s eccentric religiosity, wrote on Slate.com that it is “a straightforward if exemplary documentary—concise, intelligently edited and utterly fascinating.”
Dave Rolph, the pastor at Calvary Chapel Pacific Hills in Aliso Viejo, worked with Smith on the church history. He tells the Weekly he found the documentary “mostly fair,” though he believes the story is told through the eyes of Frisbee’s ex-wife, Connie Bremer-Murray. Rolph disagrees with the film’s assertion that Smith, Wimber and Bob Mumford, who helped create the late ’70s/early ’80s charismatic Shepherding Movement, deserted Frisbee at his darkest hour. “The one who deserted Lonnie was Connie,” Rolph asserts. “Chuck Smith was there for Lonnie, trying to help him, after Connie had given up on him. Connie’s guilt about that colors her perspective, and David bought into that.”
“I just think it overstated Lonnie’s role in the founding of Calvary,” says Chuck Girard, a Frisbee friend and successful Granada Hills-based Christian musician who appeared in the film. “Otherwise, I thought it handled all the surrounding issues in a fair and balanced way.”
Reached at the University of Chicago School of Divinity, Christian scholar Brad Collins declares, “David did a good job of offering different perspectives on the pivotal moments in Lonnie Frisbee’s life and the complexities of his succession of mentor-pupil relationships.”
Peter T. Chattaway, who interviewed Di Sabatino and reviewed Frisbee for Christian Today magazine, called it a “fascinating and complex look at a controversial figure from that era, and I applaud David’s willingness to grapple with the issues raised by these people. Pretty much everyone should be able to find something thought-provoking in there.”
Despite good tidings, the Frisbee experience left Di Sabatino wondering why more Christians did not “get it”—if they even saw it. He learned some pastors told their flocks to avoid the film lest they turn into homosexuals. “I find that frightening,” Di Sabatino says. “There is a strident, militant, fundamentalist stream of thinking in American Christianity that just doesn’t get it that it is okay if people have flaws.”
* * *
If any flawed Christian genius deservesthe big-screen treatment, it’s Larry Norman.
Merging faith and rock & roll started early for Norman. Growing up in San Francisco, he would hit the road with his deeply religious father on missionary visits to prisons and hospitals, but back home, the boy was fascinated with the music of Elvis Presley. (Ironically, Norman joined his childhood musical idol in being inducted into the Gospel Music Association’s Hall of Fame in 2001.) By 9, Norman was writing and performing original rock songs that incorporated spiritual messages. He left home in the mid-1960s and moved to San Jose, where he got involved in the local mainstream-rock scene, joining brothers Geoff and Robb Levin in forming the band People! They were signed by Capitol Records in 1966 and hit No. 14 on the Billboard Top 20 in June 1968 with their cover of the Zombies’ “I Love You.”
As a solo artist, Norman snagged the services and London studio of the Beatles’ legendary producer, George Martin, for 1972’s Only Visiting This Planet, which was later voted the greatest Christian rock album of all time. Along with Norman’s So Long Ago the Garden (1973) and In Another Land (1976), Only Visiting This Planet is highly coveted by collectors. Look the albums up on eBay or Amazon, and you’ll be amazed at the prices each fetches. They are also said to have inspired Dylan’s Christian trilogy Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980) and Shot of Love (1981).
After seeing Norman in concert, the teenage Charles Thompson IV started dressing like his “idol.” Adopting the stage name Black Francis, he helped form the Pixies in Massachusetts in 1985; two years later, the band released the EP Come On Pilgrim, a title that references a catch phrase Norman used onstage. Black and producer Steve Albini discovered their mutual admiration for Norman in the studio. In the song “Levitate Me,” Black imitates Norman’s accent as he shouts, “Come on Pilgrim, you know He loves you!” Members of U2 introduced Black to Norman during the 1992-93 Zoo TV tour, and his solo album, 1998’s Frank Black and the Catholics, features a cover of his idol’s song “Six-Sixty-Six.” In fact, one could create the goofiest compilation album ever with Norman covers by Black, Petula Clark, Pat Boone, Jack Jones, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Cliff Richard, DC Talk and Sammy Davis Jr. During a break from the Pixies’ reunion tour, Black joined Norman onstage in 2005 for what was expected to be his final concert on U.S. soil. Charles Norman is a guitarist in Francis’ current backing band.
“Fans of contemporary Christian music often claim their heroes could be mainstream stars if they did not sing about Jesus,” Chris Willman, Entertainment Weekly’s senior music writer, wrote in a moving obituary to Norman, who died on Feb. 24, 2008. “Usually, that’s a lot of malarkey, but in Norman’s case, it happened to be true: A lot of his early work wouldn’t sound at all out of place between Wings and the Stones on a classic-rock station, if not for his (usually) righteous lyrics.”