‘GODSPELL’: FROM CITY TO CITY
“You are the light of the world! But if that light is under a bushel—brrr!—it’s lost something kind of crucial.” The light of Godspell’s twentieth-century-style Matthew has been turned on in such cities as Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, Paris, and Sydney, Australia, and in amateur productions elsewhere (see “Box-Office Religion,” August 27, 1971, issue, page 36).
Godspell has been produced without words or music in Washington, D. C., for deaf audiences, and in that same city a shortened version for the “Summer in the Parks” program introduced hundreds of children to the story of Jesus each week. The musical has had a run of well over a year at Ford’s Theater in Washington and has put this national landmark in the credit column for the first time since the National Park Service began running the theater several years ago. The popular Washington cast plans to tour the country beginning in September.
Thanks to Columbia Pictures, the infectious musical is now a film, and several of the original off-Broadway cast members are in it: David Haskel, Robin Lamont, Katie Hanley, Gilmer McCormick, and Jeffrey Mylett. While the film’s setting encompasses all of New York (scenes jump to such diverse places as the Brooklyn Bridge, Coney Island, Cherry Lane Theater, where the first production was staged, and the Bulova Accutron sign at Times Square), thematic unity creates a strongly cohesive whole—with only one exception.
Director David Green juxtaposes country and city at the outset of the film. As we hear God speaking earth into creation, trees and grasses spring into view while the camera moves from the ground under the Brooklyn Bridge up to the bridge and the New York skyline hazily, lazily appears in the background. (The city is etherealized throughout much of the film by means of an interesting haze-and-light-on-lens technique.)
We immediately are plunged into a tension between country and city, as New York blaringly declares the fallen nature of its existence. Honking horns, polluting vehicles, the dirty, crowded Garment District all let us know that we have come a long way from the Eden God founded to the city man produced. Christ’s disciples-to-be rush and bustle with the best of the city-dwellers. A would-be model replete with fake hair, a black student struggling with a library’s photocopy machine, a blasé cab driver, a ballet student, a Ulysses-reading short-order waitress, and a clothes-pusher on Eighth Avenue serve as a cross-section of life to quietly remind us of the grand and glorious diversity we find in the body of Christ.
Into the midst of Brooklyn Bridge’s traffic jam walks John the Baptist, pulling a cart and blowing a ram’s horn. Each representative rushes to the fountain in Central Park, forsaking all to follow Jesus, and John joyfully baptizes them. Amid all the frolicking the camera zooms across the fountain to find Jesus standing silent and alone. After John baptizes the Master, Jesus rises from the water clothed in a clown costume. Each of the disciples, too, must have the mark of Christ on him—must become a fool for His sake—so Jesus quietly, reverently, yet excitedly paints the eager men and women with his clown colors. And they become like little children.
Jesus, Judas (David Haskell gives fine performances as both John and Judas), and the rest transform their slum-like quarters into a beauty of sorts. We see that they are in but not of the world.
Wandering about New York’s empty streets each disciple becomes a quest hero, rather like Tolkien’s Frodo, who travels from Hobbiton to the City of Mordor, where the Shadow lies. Or, in Jacques Ellul’s terms (see The Meaning of the City), they move from country to city, which is both the epitome of evil and the future crown and glory of God in the new Jerusalem.
The film progresses steadily to the thematic climax in the city of God. But when we reach it we find God’s city inverted by the new song “Beautiful City” (Stephen Schwartz, according to one cast member, wanted to write “another hit song”). Using Revelation’s symbolic elements of the new Jerusalem—alabaster and gold, for example—Schwartz calmly concludes that such things aren’t needed. Instead, “we’ve got our special plaster.” God’s city has become “the city of man.” (The song also contradicts one verse from “You Are the Light of the World,” which declares: “You are the city of God.”) The symbolic tension and joy that Green created in the film, giving it a more biblical, serious, yet no more somber mood than the play, is nearly lost after “Beautiful City.” It is also unfortunate that the song immediately follows Katie Hanley’s declaration of discipleship in “By My Side” (Miss Hanley is a dedicated Christian; see July 6 issue, page 50).
Green adds an interesting—though unbiblical?—twist to the betrayal scene. Jesus kisses Judas, an act that shows Christ even before his death assuming the sins of men. The immediate reason for the condemnation of Christ—his insistence that he will come again in judgment—is missing from the film. The atonement, which is not explicitly or strongly part of Matthew’s Gospel (on which the film is based), is merely implicit here. After the crucifixion Jesus’ disciples remove him from the wire fence to carry him triumphantly through the city’s still empty streets. According to Green, the sequence symbolizes the Resurrection, as the cast sings, “Long Live God.”
In picture-frame fashion Green returns the people to the city, which becomes just as busy and just as crowded as before John. Yet there is a difference. Streets filled with smiling people replace cursing drivers and angry pedestrians. Jesus’ disciples meld with the crowd, but the declaration to live and love Christ “Day By Day” remains in the air, penetrating the hearts of those who “truly would believe.”
Who would believe that country music in a Jewish setting could be compelling? But the combination works in Johnny Cash’s newly released film, The Gospel Road.
June Carter dreamed that her husband, Johnny Cash, was standing on an Israeli hill talking about Jesus. From that dream—and Cash’s commercials for Amoco—came this story of Jesus.
Cash sings and narrates the Twentieth Century-Fox released film. Only John the Baptist, the rich young ruler, and Mary Magdalene (overplayed by Cash’s wife) speak during the film. With a tableau-like technique director Robert Elfstrom effectively communicates action, joy, reality.
In many respects Gospel Road is similar in mood to Godspell: both films portray the free, frolicking joy of following Christ. Peter exudes wit, humor, and a love of living. As the camera introduces this big, jolly man with curly beard and hair, the viewer is struck by the realization that here is a man who could love Jesus and yet deny him. The other disciples display less personality. John, son of Zebedee, seems too small and quiet to be a son of thunder.
Elfstrom, who also plays Jesus, maintains a fine tension between joy and sorrow throughout the film. After the temptation scene Jesus runs “to tell the people now in Nazareth he’s come to walk along that gospel highway.”
Music, words, and action meld effectively.
Perhaps the best use of camera-action-narration combination comes in the song “I See Men as Trees Walking.” Jesus heals the blind man, and the camera’s eye too moves from blindness to sight. A kaleidoscope of unintelligible patterns slowly comes into focus as leaves and sunlight convey the joy of seeing.
For Jesus’ first miracle, Elfstrom shoots the action through water with Jesus smiling silently in the background. As Jesus wills the water into wine, the clear view turns red.
While Jesus’ story is freshly and energetically told, sections are dismal cinematic failures, often with heavyhanded symbolism. For example, three birds fly across the Jordan, a too obvious reference to the Trinity, as the people throw Jesus out of Nazareth (a prophet is without honor …). Also, the repetitious use of the sun to symbolize the first person of the Trinity wearies and bores. But perhaps the most cloying imagery comes during Jesus’ baptism. As a white dove lands gracefully on Christ’s shoulder, the newly anointed Messiah caresses the dove with his cheek, a too sentimental touch. Many reviewers have accused Cash of promoting a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant Jesus. But Elfstrom’s darkly bronzed skin offsets his blond Nordic hair and blue eyes.
June Carter’s acting is little more than maudlin melodrama. Contorted facial muscles and an excess of hysteria fail to create empathy in the viewer. Mary Magdalene’s cleansing seems more like an old-line Pentecostal meeting than a Galilean healing. Her body shakes, her eyes roll, and, as Jesus walks away, one is surprised not to hear her speak in tongues.
Cash allows a few minor biblical inaccuracies to sneak into the production. Nicodemus comes to Jesus during the day, though Cash comments that it’s nighttime, Peter is present at the crucifixion, and Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane occurs during daylight hours. (Did someone forget to add the blue filter before printing the film?)
The film weaves some subtle ideas together. “Help Me,” written by Larry Gatlin, its first part sung by Kris Kristofferson (the song is in four parts), is applied at one point to Jesus:
Lord, help me to walk another mile, just one more mile.… I know I just can’t make it on my own. I never thought I needed help before. I thought that I could do things by myself. But now I just can’t take it anymore. And with a hungry heart on bended knee I’m begging you please for help.
The lyrics emphasize that Jesus knew pain as we know it, that he needed God’s help as we do. There is no equivocation concerning the Gospel or the two sides to Jesus’ nature.
With flashbacks and foreshadowing (for instance, Jesus leans on a twisted tree that resembles thorns) the film assumes an artistic unity. Even the serious tone of the Last Supper suggests aspects of the joy of Jesus’ ministry. The juxtaposition of the two summarizes the tension we see and feel throughout the production. While his disciples don’t understand the “awesome things you’ve felt and seen at the touch of my hand,” Jesus tells them,
Have a little bread, Simon. Give a little wine to James my brother. Go ahead and eat, friends, and love one another. Have a good time now, for tomorrow I must die—and I’m never more going to eat with you again, till we eat the marriage supper in the sky.
The joy of sharing a meal with closest friends is superimposed on the sorrow that Jesus feels at his last supper with them.
From Gethsemane we are brutally plunged into the torture of the trial. With a slap, Jesus is thrown back from his knees, and we see him beaten and spat upon, his face misshapen and swollen.
Elfstrom carries a 200-pound cross, and his struggle up Golgotha seems real. The crucifixion, however, would have been more powerful had the camera not hovered on Mary Magdalene’s tears or replayed Christ’s final death-drop-of-the-head several times. The good idea of having Christ hang over cities, towns, and shopping centers loses impact with repetition. In fact, the basic problem with the production is that the director tends to work an interesting idea to death. But with all its limitations, The Gospel Road presents a real Jesus as he might have been.
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