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.”
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.”
* * *
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.
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.”
Norman had some less-savory aspects to his character—including a reputation as a lothario, a manipulative boss and one who took sole credit for the accomplishments of others. But all that just made Di Sabatino feel more compelled to tell Norman’s tale.
“No one else is telling the story,” Dave Rolph says, “and it is a story worth telling.”
* * *
Shortly after Norman blessed Di Sabatino’s documentary film on his life in 2005, Di Sabatino received an e-mail from someone who attended one of the musician’s concerts, at which a 19-song Frisbee CD was being sold. In the liner notes, Norman wrote, “I have been asked to contribute to the film project by allowing the use of my music in the film. The songs on this CD are some of the songs that are being used. A few others are also in the film, but often used as snippets or short segments to back up Lonnie’s changing life and carry the story forward.” Norman asked listeners to tell him what they thought about allowing use of his songs in the film.
Di Sabatino says he had no previous knowledge of the CD. When he protested, he says, Norman “went on the offensive, telling me to take the music out of the movie.” Di Sabatino refused, since he believed the songs belonged to EMI. Norman then repackaged the exact same 19 songs and five more for a “new” CD titled Slinky. In the liner notes for that one, he called the earlier album a “survey disc” that drew “almost universal response—negative, which concurred with my private opinion” about using his music in Frisbee. “Personally, I never had any interest in allowing the use of my master recordings for the film, and I notified the director of this right up front, from the beginning, before the documentary had even been edited into final form,” Norman wrote. He claimed, “The original survey CD did NOT say, nor imply, that the 19 songs inside were ‘from the soundtrack to the documentary film—Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher.’ . . . I am not trying to damage the reputation or public image of the director/producer—but attempting to protect my own.”
According to Di Sabatino, Norman then did try to “destroy and derail the Frisbee project” by phoning officials at festivals and PBS stations showing Frisbee, demanding that his music be removed from the film. The filmmaker dropped the songs, not at the behest of the artist but of EMI, which turned down his petition to use them. Di Sabatino then created a new Frisbee soundtrack that, ironically, has won raves for its mix of known and obscure Christian rockers and folkies such as Azitis, the Search Party, Fraction, the New Creation, Silmaril, Agape and the All Saved Freak Band.
Norman then set his sights on derailing Di Sabatino’s next project, the filmmaker claims, first by refusing to go on camera—interviews with the musician in the film came from archival footage—then by telling those closest to him to stay away from Di Sabatino because the fledgling documentary was born out of a “vendetta.” Anger toward Di Sabatino and his project has turned up on Christian blogs, Norman fan sites and message boards as far away as the United Kingdom, where someone posted this Valentine on the CrossRhythms.co.uk music site: “This guy, David Di Sabatino, is a nut job who is out to destroy Larry’s memory with half truths, rumors and just plain lies.”
“He has gotten his fans to enter into his madness,” says Di Sabatino. “The more I researched, the more I found out Larry had been doing this his whole career. For whatever reason, he took extreme pleasure in uprooting, derailing and causing mischief. As you unwrap this, you wonder: Who does this?”
Norman is no longer here to ask, but his brother Charles echoes the vendetta charge. “David Di Sabatino was geeking out on Larry’s music. He was a total fan who didn’t get the kind of response he wanted,” Charles Norman says. He adds that the filmmaker then went on “a tirade” against his brother. “He sent e-mails to Larry that said, ‘I’m going to fuck you up.’ This went on for a couple of years, and it escalated onto the Internet. Now that my brother is not around, he’s started attacking me.”
Charles Norman also accuses Di Sabatino of calling him a criminal, telling people not to buy Solid Rock products, and posting his and his mother’s addresses and phone numbers. “He was harassing Larry for a long time, and now he’s harassing my family. I’m pissed,” he says. “It’s one thing to take on a public figure, but it’s not right to hassle my mother.”
Rolph agreed that Di Sabatino “used to be a huge fan of Larry’s” who mistakenly believed Norman would be flattered to have his music in Frisbee, “but Larry was all business, and doing business with Larry Norman is always unpleasant, and the trail of bitterness will certainly cloud one’s perspective.”
* * *
Promotional materials for Fallen Angel: The Outlaw Larry Norman begin with the line, “Imagine the magnetism of Mick Jagger, the brilliance of Bob Dylan, the insanity of Brian Wilson all rolled into one, and you’ve only begun to unravel Larry Norman.”
The main message Di Sabatino hopes audiences take away from the film is that the title character was a broken man who still managed to move masses closer to God. Norman reminds Di Sabatino of the Old Testament’s Jacob, who manipulated people, even members of his own family, to win the blessing of God. “You’re left with a character that mesmerized people in a positive way, but offstage, he was a typical ’70s rocker, living that lifestyle,” the filmmaker says.
There is an amazing scene near the documentary’s opening in which Norman dances wildly to an instrumental break that would not sound out of place on Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell. He was, as one fellow musician remarks onscreen, a “dazzling showman” at happenings that were part concert, part sermon. With his long, straight, whitish-blond hair and fair skin, he appeared as if he emerged from the same gene pool that produced Greg and Duane Allman or Edgar and Johnny Winter; to his former wife, Pamela Newman, he looked “like an angel.”
His former People! mates say in Fallen Angel that as the band became more successful, Norman became more secretive and difficult, and by the time their debut album, I Love You, hit store shelves in 1968, he was gone. Norman later claimed Capitol had minimized the album’s spiritual message, having led him to believe it would be titled after his song “We Need a Whole Lot More of Jesus, and a Lot Less Rock and Roll.” He also alleged members of the band gave him an ultimatum to embrace Scientology or quit. But People! members onscreen deny the Scientology and Capitol claims, saying I Love You was always going to be the album title. “The entire time I was in People!, I did not know his religious beliefs,” one former band mate says.
As a solo artist, Norman was recognized as a “Christian celebrity who had a secular punch.” In 1971, Time magazine called him “probably the top solo artist in the field,” while Billboard proclaimed him to be “the most important songwriter since Paul Simon.” He recorded for Capitol and MGM before going independent in the mid-1970s and creating his own label, Solid Rock Records, where he signed the Christian country-rock group Daniel Amos, who had previously recorded under Calvary Chapel’s Costa Mesa-based Maranatha! Music label, and Randy Stonehill, whose 1976, Norman-produced Welcome to Paradise was deemed the third most important contemporary Christian album ina mid-1980s poll of music critics. As the film shows, Norman mentored Stonehill in the business and introduced him to God, something Stonehill says he is eternally grateful for.
And then everything blew up. Members of Daniel Amos allege Norman screwed up the release of their album Horrendous Disc; Stonehill alleges Norman screwed him out of songwriting royalties. Oh, yeah, and he and just about everyone at Solid Rock not named Larry Norman allege he was screwing Stonehill’s wife, an indiscretion compounded by the fact that Norman was still married to Newman, while Stonehill was out on tour. Several Solid Rock executives, employees and artists re-live for Fallen Angel “an intervention” during which they confronted their boss, who “exploded.” Says one witness, “Our family was over.”
Norman disappeared from public for years after that, and there were rumors he was living in a cave in the Hollywood Hills. After he reappeared, the film shows several people saying Norman blamed his former bad behavior on a head injury he suffered in 1978 when the middle section of an airplane he was sitting in fell on his head. Newman adds that Norman told her his family had a history of mental illness—but not him because he had Jesus. The most heart-wrenching Norman story that Fallen Angel follows involves him having fathered a child out of wedlock in the late 1980s. Stonehill breaks down as he recounts being approached on tour in Australia in 2005 by then-17-year-old Daniel Robinson, who claimed to be the son Norman never took care of—despite the Father of Christian Rock running a charity that sponsored abandoned children. Fallen Angel tries mightily to resurrect Norman’s character near the end, and a segment near the end of him strumming a guitar and pouring his soul out before a large cross is steeped in haunting poignancy.
It is a story that is told well, based on the “rich and intense” rough cuts of Fallen Angel Stonehill has seen.
“I just applaud the integrity with which the whole story has been approached,” he says. “David is committed to telling the truth—that’s of vital importance to him—and the sense I get is he has tried to capture the big truth, which can be tough at times and has some sharp edges.”
Stonehill sees in the film “Larry’s brilliance, his vision, and you see us with our youthful folly and brokenness, and ultimately, this is really a story of God’s grace because the Gospel message got through and it was communicated in a really crucial way—the musical vernacular of the day—at a crucial juncture in our culture.”
Though it was difficult “re-examining old wounds,” he’s glad he sat through four hours of interviews with Di Sabatino. “The beautiful thing about the film is it’s really about God and what he does through us, around us and in spite of us. I wish Larry knew, ‘Randy is telling the truth because he loves God and he loves me.’ That is going to break my heart the rest of my life on this side of heaven.”
Charles Norman has not seen Fallen Angel, but if it is anything like the messages he accuses Di Sabatino of spreading on the Internet, the filmmaker can soon expect to find himself on the receiving end of slander and defamation-of-character lawsuits.
“I have amassed lawyers in California and up here [Oregon] to look into this,” Norman says. “This guy is an asshole. He has a reputation in this field for being totally incorrect in what he’s saying.”
None of this surprises Di Sabatino. The film, he says, is “my attempt to understand why [Larry Norman] was doing this to me.” He found that Norman had a “30-year track record doing this sort of thing. . . . And his family seems to sadly be following in Larry’s footsteps.”
* * *
As an assistant burns DVD copies of Fallen Angel in the garage for submittal to the Sundance Film Festival, Di Sabatino is upbeat about the documentary’s prospects. It had taken 18 months and $60,000 to get to the point where the film was at that mid-September day, when it awaited color correction, professional narration, and some tweaks here and there. Fortunately, Frisbee created many friends in the business whom the filmmaker is confident will give Fallen Angel aserious look. Di Sabatino never imagined the project would take such an emotional toll on him.
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“My conceit or naiveté in beginning this whole ordeal was that there was a rational person somewhere in there that you could reason with,” he says. “‘Larry, your career is in the toilet. You are playing concerts to 100 diehard fans in your own back yard. Let me tell your story in such a way as to rehabilitate you. You are going to have to admit to some stuff . . . but do it, take your lumps, and people will respond favorably.’ I didn’t realize that there wasn’t a rational bone in his body.”
Audiences love happy endings. Di Sabatino swears Fallen Angel delivers one. “The positivity is in the fact that the music overrides everything and inspires despite the man.”