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  Godspell Jesus Freaks
Year: 1973
Director: David Greene
Stars: Victor Garber, Katie Hanley, David Haskell, Merrell Jackson, Joanne Jonas, Robin Lamont, Gilmer McCormick, Jeffrey Mylett, Jerry Sroka, Lynne Thigpen
Genre: MusicalBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: Another busy day in New York City, and various cityfolk are feeling hassled as they go about their business: the waitress who is snowed under with customers, the actress going to the audition who finds that all her rivals have shown up looking just like she does, the taxi driver caught in a traffic jam, and so on. However, eight of these New Yorkers become distracted from the daily grind when they notice a brightly-costumed man (David Haskell) attracting their attention, and are drawn to him, leaving behind their lives for a while to rush to Central Park, where he baptises them all in the fountain there...

In the battle of the Godbothering seventies musicals, Godspell is oft neglected in favour of the higher profile Jesus Christ Superstar, and it's the latter that usually gets wheeled out on Easter television while the film version of the former is regarded as a relic of a bygone age, and even looked upon with mockery. Much of this was down to how dated it looked even by the end of the decade it hailed from, as the hippy chic it dressed itself in began to look garish and ridiculous, not to mention out of step with the way modern Christianity was starting to present itself. Watched now, on the other hand, it's true you cannot divorce the film from its context, but it does have a charm all its own.

The stage musical was written by John-Michael Tebelak, with songs by Stephen Schwartz, most of which survived the transition to the cinema; Day by Day is probably the most familiar one. But like the film of Jesus Christ Superstar, this caused controversy among devout Christians who did not much like the way that the supernatural elements were downplayed, with this Christ (Victor Garber, now best known as Sydney's father in TV spy series Alias) resolutely Earth-based. Sure, he talked to God, but the message here was that this messiah was one of us, a man like any other if it had not been for his teachings and eventual crucifixion, which does not amuse those who place the Biblical figure on a pedestal.

Funny, but you might have thought that the biggest beef the critics would have would be in the film's staging, in which the whole cast come across, whether by accident or design, as incredibly patronising, as if they were talking down to the audience with their near-constant mugging and goofing around. This would be more likely to turn off the casual viewer today, not least because of the characters' dress sense which nobody in their right mind would be caught wearing nowadays, unless they were children's entertainers which oddly is how they come across. They present the parables and memorable incidents from the Gospel according to St Matthew as if they were indulging in some wacky pantomime.

Of course, for its fans this is part, if not most, of the attraction to the production, as if there's one thing this is it's goodnatured. For all the forced jollity, this is a very sincere adaptation, and couple that with the musical numbers and you have something that in its best moments can be quite captivating, even if you came to it expecting to sneer throughout. Godspell arrived at a time when the peace and love ethos of the hippies appeared to be intersecting with the teachings of Christ, and if nothing else the film captures that time; as a nostalgia piece it operates very well. Not to mention the locations around New York City, which looked to have been filmed very early on summer mornings so that the cast look to be the only people about, although their appearance atop the World Trade Center is poignant for reasons other than intended back then. Yes, it's Jesus who kisses Judas, and no, he doesn't resurrect at the end, but like so many before and so many after, Godspell was an interpretation that either speaks to you or doesn't.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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