Thursday, March 20, 2008

Prepare ye

When I was a kid, my favorite way to observe the long afternoons of Holy Week was to watch Jesus movies on TV. You could usually find something biblical on some channel, especially on Friday and Saturday -- King of Kings, Jesus of Nazareth, The Greatest Story Ever Told and so on. I didn't really care (or maybe even notice) which one I was watching. I couldn't have cared much, because when I've tried to reactivate this devotional practice as an adult, I've discovered that they're all terrible. Now, I haven't seen The Passion of the Christ, so I should make it clear that I'm not including that movie in this discussion. But based on what I have seen -- the films named above, and anything else that happened to be on television on Holy Saturday afternoon -- it is nearly impossible to make a serious film about the life of Christ that doesn't end up looking ridiculous. The stilted dialogue. The pseudo-British accents. The stunt casting. I tried to watch The Greatest Story Ever Told a few months back and found myself giggling more than I do watching Life of Brian. Jesus movies have their uses, I suppose -- we watched pieces of Jesus of Nazareth in my eighth-grade religion class, and details from it still enrich my visualization of certain Gospel stories. But I don't want Franco Zeffirelli's vision to overtake my own. And when I'm listening to the stirring cry of John the Baptist during Advent, the last thing I need is the voice of Charlton Heston ringing in my ears.

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
As ridiculous as this may sound, Godspell -- which, yes, is a 1970s rock musical based on the Gospel of Matthew -- is the only Jesus movie that doesn’t make me snicker. And I think that’s because it’s the only one that seems to be interested in the message of Jesus’s life and ministry, rather than just the events. If musical theatre leaves you cold, Godspell probably won’t change that -- if the idea of telling any story through popular music strikes you as foolish, then Godspell must seem particularly ridiculous. But even if the style is not your cup of tea, this movie will still give you a better understanding of what Christianity is about than any other Jesus movie I’ve seen.If you are a musical theatre fan, you probably already know Godspell, though you might feel a little sheepish admitting you like it. I don’t see why you should. It’s appealingly conceptual, and the music is good. The lyrics are good, too, because Stephen Schwartz had the good sense to borrow almost all of them either directly from Scripture or from public-domain hymns. (Did you know that? I didn’t, until one Lenten Sunday when I was in college. I attended mass at an old-fashioned nearby parish and was taken completely by surprise when the cantor announced the recessional hymn: “Turn Back, O Man.” Same words, different tune. Talk about a disorienting experience.) Had the lyrics come entirely from Schwartz’s pen, the results might have been less moving -- I refer you to the regrettable couplet “We all need help to feel fine/Let’s have some wine!” for an example of what might have been. But when it came to plundering old hymnals he had very good taste indeed, and as I’ve come across more of those songs in their traditional settings, I’ve become more and more impressed with the lovely job Schwartz did putting that old wine into the new wineskins of 1970s pop. "All Good Gifts" is especially successful, I think, and I've actually heard it at mass once or twice -- with Schwartz's music.

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.

1 comment:

Marla said...

Your post reminded me of how I watched "The Ten Commandments" every Passover of my entire youth. When I was little, I was superstitious about religion and thought that if I didn't watch "The Ten Commandments," I'd be a bad Jew.

What I didn't know was that Charlton Heston + Edward G. Robinson = high camp. After seeing Billy Crystal's Yul Brynner impression ("Moses and the Hebrewites think they can outdo us!"), it was all over for me, and by the time a clip of Anne Baxter as Nefretiri made an appearance in "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar" as an example of the classiest way to woo a fella, "The Ten Commandments" became not much more than an excellent candidate for "Pop Up Video: Unintentionally Hilarious Movie Edition." Good stuff, but also, bad stuff.

Happy Easter to you, the husband and the family! I hope your latest viewing of "Godspell" was just as enjoyable as all the viewings before it. Great post. Victor Garber can do anything.

Hope to see you soon ...