The Gospel according to today.
Godspell is a film version of the long running off-Broadway musical. It's been long awaited on home video due to a royalty dispute between the owners of the stage musical and the film version. Now after more than a twenty-five year wait, the film is here. 1973 was a year that ironically saw a glut of film versions of plays about Jesus Christ; Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar. Superstar certainly won that battle and became the best known of these contemporary gospel stories, but Godspell offers a much different film experience than its rival. I saw the live version of the play many years ago but have not seen the film until now. It is certainly done differently than the play I remember, but the music is the same. Columbia has done a stellar job with the transfer, but perhaps less so with the soundtrack in an overall fine DVD for fans of the play and film.
Godspell takes a very 1970s look at the gospel according to Matthew from the Bible. Disco was not yet a gleam in John Travolta's eye and flower power was still a force, and it is played in spades here. The film is an amalgamation of Bible story, stage play, vaudeville skits, mime techniques, and a whole bunch of joyous folk rock numbers. Joyous would be the key word to describe this film, with only a couple exceptions (it is hard to stay joyous during the crucifixion scene for example). Victor Garber (Titanic, Exotica) plays Christ; and assembles a group of 9 flower children, four men and five women, to play his disciples. David Haskell (K-9) plays a dual role as John the Baptist and Judas Iscariot. With the exceptions of the beginning and ending crowd scenes, the ensemble of 10 are the only people seen. They do skits while talking through the various parables, and hit upon almost every major scene in the gospel of Matthew, including the Last Supper, betrayal by Judas, and the crucifixion, leaving out the resurrection. I'm not making a judgment call on the lack of culmination of the Christian dogma.
Rather than a theater, the cast uses New York City as it's stage; doing scenes in diverse locations such as Central Park, skyscraper rooftops, and a junkyard. The cast runs, dances, skips, sings, and laughs its way from location to location, and scene to scene. There is a high level of energy throughout the performance, only becoming more subdued at the more solemn scenes, such as the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. The songs are equally energetic, and the voices superb. One of the songs, "Day by Day" even became a pretty big hit in the early '70s.
Columbia has done a fantastic job with the picture of a film over twenty-five years old. The disc comes with a beautiful 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer on one side and a soft matte, full frame transfer on the other. Other than a bit of grain in some long shots, there are few to no film defects. Colors and detail are extremely clear, with deep blacks and good shadow detail. The picture is brightly lit overall, but the darker scenes are still clearly visible. The overall look is very film-like and natural.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I'm not quite so enthusiastic about the soundtrack. While it's clear and intelligible, a musical really deserves at least a stereo soundtrack. The mono track is guaranteed to give your center channel a workout unless you're like me and have a way to use DSPs to send the signal away from the center. I'd much prefer even a mono two-channel that goes exclusively to the left and right front instead. When I employed the digital sound processing, the soundstage became much more expansive and musically pleasing. One song did have a bit of distortion (probably from the original track), but overall the sound was fine if a bit underwhelming.
The extras are also a bit underwhelming, though I only have a complaint in one area. That complaint is again in the area of Columbia's Talent Files, which remain incomplete. For example, Lynne Thigpen (Random Hearts, Blankman, TV's All My Children) actually has a fairly full résumé but isn't even included among the actors listed in them. The rest of the extra content isn't bad; direct access to musical numbers is a very nice extra and one I'd say is almost required for a musical. The production notes are a one-page leaflet inside the case, and with the exception of one error in song listing, are pretty good. The theatrical trailer and bonus trailers for Bye, Bye, Birdie and Oliver complete the package. The trailers aren't in nearly as good shape as the film looks, but I don't downgrade much for that.
Now back to the film itself. The first thing anyone will notice is how very, very dated it looks. The afros, psychedelic clothes, face paint, and flower power trappings set this as a time capsule for the beginning of the '70s. This didn't bother me overmuch, but may take some doing to get past to enjoy the film for what it is. While this doesn't make the mistake of some stage play to film transformations, namely the look of watching a play on film, I'm not sure this works as well as a movie as it did as a play. Maybe it's the times that I saw the play in, but I enjoyed the live production much more than this film version. It's nothing I can really put my finger on, but it just didn't seem as intimate and the songs not as stirring. I don't know that any choices of the filmmakers could have made it better, and it's still pretty good.
Fans of musicals and folk rock in particular should really enjoy this disc. Turn off the Pro-Logic and let the sound come from more than the center channel and you should be happy. If you're a fan of the play itself, as I was, it definitely deserves at least a chance viewing. Rent it or pre-order it at a big discount online and you probably won't be sorry. For those who think the era of the film and the story too onerous, this won't be for you.
The film and play will go down in history as a nice way to tell the Jesus story to a modern day audience. Columbia is both commended for a beautiful transfer and warned against using a mono track for a musical film. All are dismissed.
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