Monday, March 31, 2008

Monday Movie Review: Godspell

Godspell (1973) 3/10
Jesus (Victor Garber) comes to New York with big clown feet and paints the faces of his followers. Then he dies.

I'm trying to decide if Godspell is the worst movie I've ever seen. Maybe not. But it's a contender. Yet, it's the kind of bad movie I'm fascinating by, as I attempt to understand the choices that the filmmakers made. In other words, what were they thinking?

Now, I'd heard that Godspell was a bad movie, but when I know the score of a musical, I like to see it, because I like to see the songs in context, and this leads me to seeing some real turkeys. Like A Chorus Line. And less than halfway through Godspell, I realized there is no context. All these songs that I know so well, that I'd wondered about—where in the story of Jesus do they fit?—don't fit anywhere. They're just sung by a traveling troupe of Jesus clowns.

The movie opens with a bunch of ordinary New Yorkers doing ordinary, frustrating things. Getting stuck in traffic, serving coffee at a lunch counter, using the public library. Then John the Baptist calls them to come and worship the Lord. As they gather in Central Park, their ordinary clothes are transformed into hippie clothes. Okay, I can get behind that. Certainly the idea that Jesus was a hippie of sorts in his own era is not unheard of, and was popular in 1973. Rejecting the material and all that.

Then the group finds a junkyard, and there they find the makings of clown costumes (apparently this is where the circus dumps its stuff when it leaves town). They dress up, act goofy, and Jesus paints everyone's faces with cute little clown stuff.

The whole time this is going on, it's very shticky, very over-acted, with lots of big gestures and wide-eyed facial expressions. I'm thinking, I guess they're making a case for innocence and childlike openness to the wonder of God. The problem I'm having is that they're not really distinguishing between childlike innocence and actual brain damage. Some of these people are acting innocence so broadly that I fear they will wander out in traffic. Maybe they're suffused with the joy of the Presence, but they seem more like they're off their meds.

But hey, innocence. Gentleness. Love. I'm still suspending disbelief mightily. And then Jesus delivers his first message. And it's about the importance obeying every letter of the law. Well, thud. That's definitely not about love and innocence.

The entire movie takes place all over New York City, in locations empty except for the Jesus clowns, as diverse as Lincoln Center, Ward's Island, and the top of the World Trade Center (still under construction at the time). The group walks from spot to spot, acting out parables. The parables don't relate to the locations, nor do they flow one to another. Each is entirely separate, as if each was a part of a different performance. No flow, no plot (not even, y'know, Jesus's life), no sense of who the characters are. Meanwhile, who they are is a group of the shtickiest overacters ever born. Each parable is acted out with "funny" voices; often more than one per character, AND broad movements, AND silly props, AND mime. It's like it's their last day at Clown School, and they have to use everything they've learned. Everything. Over and over.

There were some charming moments; the All for the Best number was wonderfully done, and Jesus in the Garden in his moment of doubt is quite touching, although by that point in the film I was too impatient to appreciate it. But everything is so broad that the enjoyable moments get buried.

And yes, the music is excellent. In my own mind, I am judging the movie entirely separate from music, since the music pre-dates it. And maybe that isn't fair, since some movie musicals certainly do butcher original scores. The vocal performances are outstanding, although it's hard to pay attention to Lynne Thigpen's magnificent rendition of "Bless the Lord" while she is wearing a funny hat and face paint and a choker made of giant beads in rainbow colors and ruffled sleeves and a polka-dot vest and lavender tights and funny shoes.

I'm going to listen to the soundtrack and try to forget I saw this.

(Prepare Ye the Way of the Cross-Post)