Therefore I am pleased to announce that this Sunday afternoon, my favorite channel, Turner Classic Movies, will mark the Easter holiday by airing my favorite Jesus movie:
- 3:00 PM Godspell (1973)
Contemporary hippies relive the story of Christ's ministry and crucifixion. Cast: Victor Garber, David Haskell, Lynne Thigpen. Dir: David Greene. C-102 mins, TV-G
Much of Godspell’s success lies in its refusal to take itself too seriously. I think it manages to be lighthearted without being lightweight. And because of that, the “contemporary hippie” atmosphere doesn’t obscure the message; it’s actually much easier for me to accept Jesus with an afro, facepaint and a Superman T-shirt than to look past the stilted posturing and sound-stagy settings of “realistic” Bible movies.
The movie version of Godspell has a couple major virtues besides its stage-musical source material: first, it was shot on location in New York City, and the use of locations is inventive and evocative – sometimes more than they could have known at the time, as when Jesus and John the Baptist tap-dance atop the brand-new World Trade Center. I know I can’t look at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Riverside Drive without thinking of the parable of the Last Judgment. The movie is an opportunity to see New York, and life in New York, in an entirely different light.
Second, I can't say enough about Victor Garber's terrific performance as Jesus. All those other, more “historical” movie Jesuses are solemn and humorless. They look at you with sad (and almost always blue) eyes. They intone everything they say. Their hair is limp and drab. They seem like they might drop dead of malnourishment at any moment. Victor Garber’s Jesus is an entirely different sort of messiah: he has a soft, gentle voice. He’s always smiling. He seems to delight in telling stories, sharing the good news, being with his friends. He gets angry. He does silly dances. We never see him performing any literal miracles, but to me he is a much richer embodiment of what it means to be holy than any of the Jesuses in those other movies.
Of course, I can’t discuss Godspell without also discussing Jesus Christ Superstar, which I’d just as soon ignore completely. They’re both “rock musicals” about Jesus, and they both premiered around the same time, with film versions released in 1973. But (and I don’t mean this to be a joke) the similarities end there. Superstar is nominally about Jesus, but it isn’t the least bit interested in his mission, and it has a very cursory grasp on the events of his life and their meaning. The musical exemplifies all the pitfalls that Godspell avoids: the absurdity of “rock opera” in general and of Bible-based “rock opera” in particular; the ridiculous lyrics of Tim Rice; self-importance to the extreme. The movie, with its budget desert production values and “traditional” Bible-movie look, combines the worst of both worlds. Oh, there’s some fun music in the mess -- I can’t deny loving that opening guitar figure, and I have an embarrassing fondness for the song “Could We Start Again, Please?” But none of it has anything to do with Christianity, and I’m always a little embarrassed that people might think otherwise. I’m also insulted on Godspell’s behalf that these two are always mentioned in the same breath, because Godspell ends up getting some of the scorn that ought to be reserved for Superstar. Take the recent Broadway show Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me, for example. Short got his big break in a touring company of Godspell, and that story is told, elliptically, in the show. But the musical number “Stepbrother de Jesus” is really making fun of Jesus Christ Superstar. Because Jesus Christ Superstar is ridiculous –- but when you look closely, Godspell really isn’t.
So this is just a heads-up for those of you who’ve never had the pleasure: TCM on Sunday at 3, right between Easter Parade and King of Kings. So you can do your own compare-and-contrast exercise! I’m about to get my Triduum on, so this is probably the last you’ll hear from me till next week. However you spend Easter -- or, if you prefer, Joan Crawford’s 100th birthday -- I hope it’s a happy one.