Movie Musical Monday: Godspell (1973)

The 1973 film adaptation of Godspell is what I think a mild acid trip while reading the bible would be like. A retelling of the Gospel of St. Matthew, the film Godspell takes place in 1970s New York City. We start by watching John the Baptist walk across a bridge. We are then introduced to, who we will discover, are Jesus Christ’s disciples, going about their everyday, self-involved lives. But, soon, they each see John the Baptist appear to them. And then each hears the horn, and then they each hear those words “Prepare ye the way of the Lord” and they make their way to Central Park to the “Angel of the Waters” fountain, where they are all then baptized by John the Baptist. During this segment, John the Baptist sees Jesus Christ off in the distance. And, once everybody is baptized and happy and running away, Jesus Christ comes to John and asks to have himself baptized. All in all, it’s a beautiful sequence to the start of this film. From this moment, we follow Jesus and his disciples around New York City while they act and sing out parables from the Gospel of St. Matthew. We follow all the way to the Last Supper, the betrayal by Judas Iscariot and, ultimately, to Christ being crucified. Overall, this is a very powerful musical.

Before I dive into talking about the musical itself:

One of my favorite things about film history is that, 9 times out of 10, you can figure out what was happening at that point in time by the themes and messages that are within the film. Godspell is no different. Godspell is one of the few movie musicals that came out after the 1950s. You see, once the Golden Age of Musicals ended, Hollywood found it hard to make and market musicals that people would go and see, so fewer and fewer were coming out. Don’t get me wrong, they were still there, but the films were being released with particular audiences in mind. And, oddly enough two movie musicals about Jesus Christ came out in the year 1973: Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar. Anyway, let’s look at what was happening in the United States at the time of a.) this musicals creation and b.) the release of the movie version.

The stage musical premiered Off-Broadway in the year 1970, with the film being made and released three years later. Being written by students at Carnegie Melon during the late 1960s, the Vietnam War was in full swing. This was a time of turmoil in the United States. There was a yearning, not for war, but for peace and love, hence the hippie movement. People were looking for peace. So, it makes complete sense that this musical was created during this time. Because, whether you’re religious or not, if you’ve ever read the Gospel of St. Matthew, and in particular the Sermon on the Mount, you’d know that it really is preaching peace and love. It’s preaching how to live your best life, in the eyes of God. So, at a time of turmoil and chaos and generational divide in the United States, out came a musical that preached love and peace, and preached living for something other than you.

That brings me to the clown costumes. Most of the time, I think that the clown costumes are taken more for hippie outfits, which is not necessarily true. But, I get how that has come about. Anyway, why is Jesus Christ depicted in clown-like clothes? Why are his disciples also depicted in clown-like clothes? One of the major themes in this film is community and rebellion and community through rebellion. Ultimately, the clown costumes came from the writing of Harvey Cox, where he describes Jesus as the clown in his book “Feast of Fools”. But, the clown costumes help with the separation from the rest of society. They help to create a sense of community among the disciples.

Music, music, music. Stephen Schwartz wrote the music for Godspell, and damnnit, if he didn’t do a wonderful job. The music is catchy, and a great chunk of it is pulled from scripture. One of the fun things about this musical is that there really isn’t one style. I can’t say “this is a rock musical” or “this is a folk musical”, because it pulls from everything. And, even though it pulls from so many different musical styles, Schwartz is able to blend it together so well that it all just fits. I dare you to watch this musical (or even just listen to the soundtrack) and not find at least ONE song that you love.

Mine, personally, is “All for the Best”. Watch the video above and love it with me, please.

Real talk: I did not realize, at first, that Jesus Christ was played by Victor Garber. I mean, in my mind, he’s always had the white hair, and looked as if he was 40 or 50. So, to see him, playing Jesus Christ, in clown-like clothes, with a red afro, was AMAZING. I was thrilled. His performance as Jesus Christ feels so real and genuine. In particular during the crucifixion scene, where his voice tapers off, right before he dies. It hurts me so much.

I also would like to note David Haskell, who has the voice of an angel, and Robin Lamont, who has a voice like dark chocolate (deep, rich, and wonderful). Both actors had one hell of a performance. My only complaint would be that, had I not already known that John the Baptist and Judas are played by the same person, there was no real distinction between the two characters from the opening scene, onward.

Some things that I just want to mention because I LOVED THEM:

  • Ending “All for the Best” on top of the, then under construction, Twin Towers. Like hell, if I would have do a dance number that high up. Kudos to them.
  • The song “Beautiful City” that was written specifically for the film is beautiful. And it fits. It seems to be rare that, when a song is written solely for a movie version of a musical, that it fits in with the rest of the score. I mean, just look at 2012’s Les Miserables’ song “Suddenly”.
  • Washing the marks off of the faces of his disciples, which is symbolic of Jesus Christ washing his disciples feet was done SO BEAUTIFULLY. The acting in that scene alone takes my breath away.
  • Carrying a crucified Jesus Christ back to the city of the living, after running all around an empty New York City. I thought that was such a clever way to do things. Like, I’m so impressed by it. The entire film, it’s only Jesus and his disciples. Once he dies, they carry him back, and all of a sudden, there are people everywhere. It’s a beautiful symbol of his resurrection.
  • The ending to the film, in general. How all of the disciples go back to their lives, but they’re completely changed. They no longer live a day to day life that is self-involved. They take what they learned and they apply it.

You know that I like this film, solely because I paid to rent it through Amazon Prime. I mean, it was only $3.99, but it was completely worth it. It’s one that I want to add to my own personal film collection as soon as I can.

What do you think? Do you like the film? Is it too “out there” for you? What do you think of the music? I’d love to know. Especially since I have yet to discuss this film with anybody in my daily life who has actually watched it. And that’s all that I want to do. I want to discuss it. So, let’s discuss!


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