Godspell or God-awful?
The original movie was released in 1973 and was adapted from an off-Broadway play created by John-Michael Tebelak. The movie takes place in modern day New York City with a motley crew of ten troubadours traipsing around the cities famous land marks dancing, singing, and acting out skits of the parables from the book of Matthew. When it was originally released, it received good reviews and relatively more acclaim than the similarly biblilically-insired the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. It has also been reenacted more often by churches and youth groups, who use it for evangelism and teaching purposes.
The film begins with the hustle and bustle of the normal city life, highlighting the main characters as they go about their worldly pursuits. Then here comes over the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge a colorfully clad man pulling a cart full of junk. Is this man homeless? Here he is singing and happily smiling, enjoying his leisurely walk, as he passes and you see his coat of many colors. As he passes, one sees a fish embroidered on the back of it. It made me think, this must be Jesus. It is a movie about Jesus, isn’t it? But no, this character ends up being as psychedelic as his coat, and maybe a little schizophrenic since he ends up playing more than one part in the movie.
His first character is John the Baptist, calling the disciples from their mundane existence in the big city to the fountain in Central Park to be baptized by him. These new additions to the play come skipping to the park by the sound of a ram’s horn being blown by our John that only they hear. As they traverse toward the park they throw off their conservative attire and implements of their previous life. All inhibitions are washed away as they play in the water fountain not only to be baptized by John but by one another. It is as if they are no longer the responsible adults of their previous existence but are regressing to a more youthful, carefree existence of children.
At first I had hope for this film, especially since I am a fan of musicals and especially Jesus Christ Superstar, but it seemed that from this point forward except for some good musical numbers I could not shake the idea that I was watching a rendition of Jesus’ life by the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus.
Jesus pops in on John and these unsuspecting disciples across from the fountain. He is made-up as either a clown or a mime. He has John baptize him and as he come up out of the water he is now dressed more as a clown with a big ‘S’ on his shirt. Is this Super Jesus?
All the disciples now too are clothed as multi-colorful clowns. They now skip off with one another following Jesus as one maybe watching Sesame Street, till they come to a junkyard were they begin to play and act out parables. They end up cleaning up and painting the junkyard as if it is some type of play house for their group; still reminding me of Sesame Street. They eventually skip out all over the city acting out parables and singing songs as they move around a people-less New York.
My confusion increases as they not only sing and perform, but enact teachings from scripture. Who is actually doing the teaching, Jesus or these troubadour disciples? They teach each other as much as he does.
At the end of the movie, John, who has now somehow magically changed into Judas has turned Jesus in to the authorities, who are never seen. This is maybe the only moving moment of the movie: as Judas comes with the authorities, he shows reluctance in coming to Jesus. Jesus beckons him forward and Judas through himself at Jesus as to say he is sorry. It is Jesus who kisses Judas’ checks not the other way around. It is then Judas who ties Jesus to the fence of their play yard to be hanged. All the other players cry and wail as they grab hold of the fence and convulse with Jesus as he dies. When dawn come they all take down their Jesus and carry him to through the streets of the people-less city, until they turn the corner and are lost in the crowd as the people again reappear.
The movie is based on the gospel of Matthew. The most theological part is the use of the most parables and teachings in a film that we have seen so far. As for how true to the text the movie portrays, I would have to say this is not one to watch if looking for particular insight into the historical life of Jesus or a Biblical reneactment. In a little more depth one could see a hint of Liberation Theology as the disciples are called out of the world, changed through their relationship with Jesus, and then sent back into the world to carry the good news of Christ with them. I really hate that the passion and the resurrection are not portrayed in this story well or at all, since this is one of the most theologically relevant themes in Christianity. This can leave many wondering if Jesus was just a great teacher, a flash-in–the-pan or even relevant in the world today.
Personally, I see this movie aimed at a young audience. The fun attitude of the troubadours, the short skits of the parables, and the songs would appeal to this group. For those seeking a more deep theology, textual portrayal of the life of Jesus, I would look elsewhere. However, one may find use of particular clips of the movie helpful that could be used in a teaching lesson or during a sermon . As a minister, I can imagine that it may have entertainment value but this movie was one of only two movies in my life that I could have fallen asleep in. Even though I did enjoy some of the songs, those I could have watched on YouTube;. the film as a whole is not engaging. In the end, it is probably not worth your movie-watching time.