As many of you know, raised by parents (especially Mom) who loved musicals I grew up to love them too, and down through the decades I have seen virtually all of the classics either on stage or on screen, and sometimes both - all but one major exception, that is. And that major exception was Godspell – until today [15 November 2019], when I watched on a recently-purchased DVD the 1973 movie version of this very famous stage musical, which was first performed off-Broadway in 1971, and whose songs were written by musicals maestro Stephen Schwartz (his subsequent successes include Pippin, Wicked, and the stage version of The Prince of Egypt).
Godspell is directly inspired by the Gospel According To St Matthew from the New Testament of the Holy Bible, but it is set in a flower-power New York City of the late 1960s, and the movie, directed by David Greene, was actually filmed entirely on location there. Yet, incredibly, for almost the entire movie the only people visible anywhere in NYC are the actors and actresses. How the movie crew managed to clear the streets, parks, buildings, etc of all other people in one of the world's biggest and most bustling cities is anyone's guess, especially as many shots are panoramic, filmed overhead from either helicopters or light aircraft and thereby taking in huge swathes of NYC simultaneously.
Just as the slightly later Jesus Christ Superstar musical by Tim Rice & Andrew Lloyd Webber attracted its fair share of controversy at the time, so too did Godspell, particularly as Jesus and His disciples are all portrayed as face-painted, gaudily-garbed hippy-type/flower-power children. Yet somehow, inexplicably, it works, and the result for me was an enormously joyous paean to God, to the teachings of Jesus, and to the power of love.
No overly famous stars appear - perhaps the most notable are Victor Garber as Jesus, and David Haskell who, in keeping with Godspell tradition but never explained and sometimes potentially confusing when viewing this musical, plays a dual role of John the Baptist and Judas Iscariot. Tragically, David passed away aged only 52, meaning that he was already halfway through his life when playing this role (which he had also previously played on stage), as he was then aged about 26, but his exuberant performance is preserved forever here.
Prior to watching this movie version, I was only familiar with the two most famous Godspell songs - 'Prepare Ye The Way Of The Lord' (click here to view it performed in the movie), and 'Day By Day' (click here), both of which are in the traditional evangelical, gospel style. So I was totally unprepared for the extraordinary diversity of music genres that appeared in it. These included a 1920s flapper-style number, 'Turn Back, O Man', sung by one of the disciples as a veritable Mae West doppelganger (click here). And, in particular, 'All For The Best', a wonderful 'top-hat, tails & cane' song-and-dance vaudeville routine (but without the top hat and tails) redolent of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly but performed instead by Victor Garber as Jesus (wearing the Superman vest) and David Haskell as Judas/John the Baptist (wearing the circus ringmaster outfit), plus some spectacular panoramic views (click here).
Apart from the interspersion of various parables from St Matthew's Gospel acted out in humorous but affectionate and not in any way blasphemous manner, the entire musical is in the Grand Opera style of performance, inasmuch as it is sung throughout, with no dialogue other than a few familiar Gospel-quoted statements here and there by Jesus. The betrayal and crucifixion scene is harrowing, as would be expected, and the ending, in which His disciples carry the lifeless body of Jesus through a suddenly repopulated New York City, again caused some controversy back in the day, because there is no unequivocal representation of His resurrection. However, the accompanying music is a joyous reprised medley of 'Prepare Ye The Way Of The Lord' and 'Day By Day', which to me seems to be this musical's way of confirming that He has indeed been reborn and should be followed once more.
All in all, Godspell is for me a very enjoyable and engrossing if unquestionably offbeat take on Jesus' adult life, teachings, and ultimate sacrifice, with some very memorable, hummable songs, and even an actress (Robin Lamont) who both looks and sings uncannily like a young Agnetha from Abba. What more could anyone ask for?!!
An effective overview of this very varied but always compelling movie can be readily obtained by clicking here to watch its official trailer on YouTube.
[This review's earlier, shorter version was originally written by me on 15 November 2019.]