When I was a high school freshman, I scored a bit part in our fall play. I don’t remember much about the actual production itself, but I do remember hanging around backstage with the rest of the cast in between scenes.
I was the only freshman in the play, so I was excited to be around older students for the first time. And many of them were hard-core drama geeks, with hopes of moving on to Broadway or Hollywood after high school. As we hung around backstage, they passed the time acting out their favorite movie scenes, making funny voices and adding a (liberal) pinch of drama to even their most mundane conversations. At first, I found it exhilarating to be around such energetic, creative people. But as the evening wore on, and their energy never flagged and the funny voices kept coming, it stopped being cute. I began praying for the weekend, when I’d be back with my more subdued friends.
That old feeling returned when watching “Godspell,” David Greene’s 1973 film adaptation of the popular Broadway musical. For nearly two hours, the Christ story is retold on the streets of New York by a Jesus (Victor Garber) who wears striped suspenders, a Superman t-shirt and clown makeup. He’s surrounded by a team of equally colorful disciples who turn a junkyard into a gathering space and then act out Christ’s sermons and parables as they travel through the city, incorporating elements of vaudeville, musical theater and general goofiness into their stagings. There’s an exuberance that makes the whole telling of the familiar story feel refreshing, but after awhile, it becomes a bit too manic and high-strung. It turns the gospel into the most annoying story ever mime’d.
It’s an interesting film to discuss following my viewings of “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” The production is actually billed as a musical interpretation of Matthew’s gospel, and the majority of the non-singing dialogue is straight from The Bible. Like “Jesus Christ Superstar,” it’s the Christ story told with music, heavily influenced by the Jesus Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, the film of “Godspell” was actually released the same year as Norman Jewison’s “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
But whereas the last two movies were interesting looks at who Christ is and people’s immediate reactions to him, “Godspell” doesn’t quite work for me as a thought-provoking look at Christ’s life. It may retell Matthew’s gospel, but the context is off. I’m always a bit skeptical about modern-day gospel stories, because so much of Jesus’ life and death hinged on the time and place he lived. Jewish prophecies, religious traditions and the context of Roman oppression all play into why that time was the right time for Jesus to come and die. Removing the story from that setting takes away much of its richness, and since “Godspell’s” cast is limited to Jesus and the disciples, it doesn’t really replace that context with anything else.
But I don’t know that it’s meant to be a straight retelling. Yes, there’s some mysticism at work when John the Baptist calls the other disciples. But the rest of the film never really tells much of the gospel narrative, aside from the crucifixion (and even then, Jesus is just tied to a gate). The songs aren’t like in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” where they give us a glimpse inside the characters’ minds. They’re just nice buttons to the scenes where the disciples and Jesus act out sermons and parables. And, as with any musical, it should be said that the songs are the highlight. “Day by Day,” in particular, is a beautiful song (and, of course, any self-respecting ’90s youth group kid knows that song already from dc Talk’s “Jesus Freak” album…or “Meet the Parents”).
Going back to the analogy at the beginning, watching “Godspell” really feels like watching a bunch of drama students who were inspired by the gospel story go out and act it out on the street, similar to when you see youth groups perform gospel stories in pantomime on missions trips. They’re energized by the stories and they incorporate their own little tics and favorite vaudeville routines into them — there’s puppetry, a comedy routine, even a bit of silent cinema. There’s a Mae West-style number about temptation, a fairly elaborate dramatization of the rich man and the poor man parable, and even a dance number that culminates atop the under-construction World Trade Center. And they’re performing these stories for the audience in the theater and at home, to share the feelings of joy and excitement they get from the Jesus story. While I don’t know if that was the intention of the musical’s creators, I find it to be an interesting way of looking at “Godspell,” and one that makes me think about the ways Christians should be communicating the gospel story.
Growing up, I often heard rumblings that “Godspell’s” irreverence bordered on blasphemy. I disagree; sure, it’s unorthodox, but the silliness is laced with earnestness. In my review of “Risen,” I remarked that it’s rare to see a film that shows the disciples with much joy. Stories on the life of Christ are often very solemn and reserved, which makes sense given its importance and the events of Christ’s final days. But lost in those subdued tellings are reminders that the word “Gospel” means “good news.” Christians have long believed that their faith is something to be lived out with joy and in community with others, and once you get on “Godspell’s” goofy wavelength, it’s a very happy, energetic depiction of a story that we believe still has the power to save and transform.
And it makes me wonder how we tell our stories. Christians have a reputation for being just as solemn and subdued when it comes to talking about Jesus’ life and death. I gather that we want to make sure we stress its importance and not get anything wrong, but I have to think about nonbelievers who see us talk about a man raised from the dead and life-changing salvation with less enthusiasm and joy than when we talk about our hometown team winning the World Series. The goofy, circus atmosphere of Jesus and the disciples here might be a bit odd, but that’s the point. There’s a joy and vibrancy that sets them apart because they’ve been changed and pointed to a different, better way of living. I kind of wish that maybe modern Christians had a bit more undignified, unconstrained exuberance when talking about the gospel story.
I can see why people have loved the musical all these years, and I’d be very interested in seeing a live version of this story. The film moves with energy and joy, and any of the parables or songs would be fun to watch as isolated moments. I love how Greene turns 1970s New York it its own giant set; there’s a beautiful look to the city that gives the film so much vitality. Victor Garber is really strong as Jesus, portrayed as more tender and energetic than we usually get to see (when he bounds down the street, I could only think of the description of “The Middle’s” Sue Heck walking: ‘like a 5-year-old and Tigger.’) Likewise, Haskell brings a lot of energy and quirks to Judas/John, although the film seems to rush through the events from the Last Supper through the crucifixion. And each of the disciples bring their own personality and quirks, from one who engages in silly pratfalls to another who has a sock puppet on her arm. Also, one of the disciples is played by Lynne Thigpen, who played The Chief on “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” (She does not, unfortunately, launch into any songs by saying “Do it Rockapella.”)
But as I said earlier, the film is too manic, to the point where it becomes annoying instead of inspiring. Greene apparently never taught his cast — a few of whom originated the roles on Broadway — to modulate their performances from stage to screen. What played well in the theater feels grating after just a few minutes here, and the entire film feels pitched at an energy level that is more in line with interstitial skits on “Sesame Street” than a major motion picture. It’s also, as I said, not the ideal way to hear about the Christ story, lacking so much of the context of the biblical narrative (not to mention a resurrection).
And yet, there’s something about it I can’t quite dismiss, and it comes down to “Godspell’s” joy. It’s refreshing to see the Christ story told without the staid seriousness we’re so accustomed to, and with humor and energy that isn’t making fun of the gospel story but rather finds its vibrancy from it. “Godspell” may not tell the gospel story perfectly, but it does tell it with an enthusiasm and vitality we so often lack. And for that, I’m glad it exists.
Other films in the Road to Easter 2016 series: