Whenever this time of year rolls around -Easter Sunday and the week leading up to it- I remember that we do, in fact, own The Passion of the Christ on DVD. We came to own it by way of my devoutly Catholic grandmother who received it as a gift (I have no idea who gave it to her), got through the first half hour, and then gave it to my mother because she “didn’t want it in the house.” Direct quote! And that’s how we came to own The Passion of the Christ. My mother still hasn’t seen it. She’s said that on some distant Good Friday, she will finally sit down and watch it but thankfully, that Good Friday has not arrived.
Remember The Passion of the Christ? It came out six years ago before Mel Gibson went nuts, caused a big stir and for awhile it was the only movie anybody could talk about. I saw it in the theater with a big group of friends who came armed with King-Size boxes of Kleenex and scowled when I got popcorn. Before the movie started, they had to kick people out of the aisles and sent somebody to the front to tell us to make sure we had everyone in our party accounted for because it was playing so many different theaters. Then this person said, “And now The Passion of the Christ” in this stone cold voice as if we were at a funeral. Which we were, in a way, I guess. It was all very intense and we used the tissues and I didn’t eat the popcorn, but when I look back, the movie itself is very much a blur. A handful of images stayed with me (Gethsemane, St. Veronica, the Marys cleaning up the blood, that freaking dead donkey) but more than anything, I just recall the loud groan that escaped the entire audience when we collectively decided we couldn’t take it anymore. It may have been when the cat-o’-nine-tails appeared but who really knows. It was violent, I cried and when it was over, I never wanted to see it again. It was about Jesus’ death, not Jesus himself. Worse, it was Jesus’ death as Torture Porn.
I know the crucifixion was brutal, but why make that the point? The Passion all but flashed BE GUILTY at us every few minutes. The man and his teachings took a decided backseat to THE DEATH. I think they had some flashbacks to better times but I honestly can’t say because I watched most of it between my fingers and I haven’t seen it since. You need to be in a certain mood for gore and guilt, and that mood doesn’t find me often. It’s not a movie that makes you say, “Well, I’m bored. I think I’ll watch The Passion.” And it’s definitely not a movie I want to celebrate Easter with. No, for that, I need a musical. A musical about Jesus, his life, his teachings, AND his death. Two, in fact. These are, of course, Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar, both released in 1973 and as different in style and tone as it is possible to be. They are two of my favorite movies and Easter isn’t complete without them the way Christmas isn’t complete without The Muppet Christmas Carol and A Christmas Story.
Whatever your beliefs, one thing cannot be denied: the story of Jesus is a good story. You’ve got a cast of wild characters (John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene, Judas, Pilate, Herod, the Devil etc.) led by a hero who has gone on to inspire virtually every major hero in Western culture from King Arthur straight on to Harry Potter. Throw in philosophy, temptation, betrayal, false accusations, thwarted love, political intrigue, murder, redemption, and of course, good vs. evil, and it makes a riveting tale. It almost begs to be set to music.
Godspell - "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord!"
Directed by David Greene, Written by David Greene and John-Michael Tebelak, Songs by Stephen Schwartz. Starring: Victor Garber (Jesus), David Haskell (John the Baptist/Judas Iscariot), Katie Hanley, Merrell Jackson, Joanne Jonas, Robin Lamont, Gilmer McCormick, Jeffrey Mylett, Jerry Sroka, Lynne Thigpen
Godspell updates the Gospel according to Matthew to modern day New York City (modern day being, of course, 1973). John the Baptist crosses the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan and recruits eight ordinary people (including a waitress, a student, a cab driver, a parking lot attendant, and a model) going about—and vaguely dissatisfied with—their daily lives. He baptizes them in Central Park (in Bethesda Fountain!) and prophesies the coming of one mightier than himself. When Jesus appears, clad in rainbow suspenders, a Superman shirt, Chuck Taylors, and clown makeup, he leads the group through the now deserted streets of New York as they act out the parables and learn to love each other.
Godspell makes me so happy. It’s campy, it’s dated and yet it’s one of the most joyful, life-affirming movies I’ve ever seen. The songs, some of them lifted straight out of the Bible, are beautiful (and catchy!) and the message is one to live by no matter what you believe: love one another, pure and simple. It acts as a beautiful showcase for New York City. For most of the movie, thanks to gorgeous cinematography and clever editing, the ten characters appear to be the only people in the city. The effect is magical, making New York seem like another world. I can’t walk by Bethesda Fountain now without wanting to jump in and splash around. And Godspell is the only movie where I can see the Twin Towers and not feel devastated (though their prominence during one number always gives me the chills).
As for the acting? Ham. Easter ham, if you will, with honey. But it suits the piece so well. After all, they are a bunch of adults purposely acting like little kids. They act out the parables with slapstick, funny voices, and heartbreaking sincerity. They also look like real people, not like STARS, though they all have star talent. Look out for the late Lynne Thigpen, better known to folks of my generation as the Chief from “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?” Victor Garber (a very young Victor Garber) might be my favorite onscreen Jesus. So often in movies Jesus is portrayed as a slightly sedated figurehead spouting Biblical quotes as if he were reading off a day calendar. Garber’s Jesus has charisma and a playful tenderness, showing the depth of love he has for his disciples even in moments of anger, which is how I like to think of the real Jesus. And somehow when he quotes the Bible, he makes the words his own. Haskell is also excellent as both John the Baptist and Judas, providing occasional moments of darkness and doubt. Most of the show is built on innocent happiness, but when the tone turns from light to dark, it turns with a vengeance. I usually spend the last 20 minutes weeping violently, not because of blood and gore, but because I can feel the genuine grief of Jesus and his disciples. I wish they had shown us this in CCD. It’s a wonderful approach to the New Testament and a must for the Easter season.
"Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord"
"All for the Best"
And now for something completely different…..
Jesus Christ Superstar – “Every time I look at you I don’t understand / why you let the things you did get so out of hand.”
Directed by Norman Jewison, Screenplay by Norman Jewison and Melvyn Bragg, Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Book and Lyrics by Tim Rice. Starring: Carl Anderson (Judas Iscariot), Ted Neeley (Jesus Christ), Yvonne Elliman (Mary Magdalene), Barry Dennen (Pontius Pilate), Bob Bingham (Caiaphas), Josh Mostel (King Herod), Paul Thomas (Peter), Kurt Yaghijn (Annas), Larry Marshall (Simon the Zealot)
Filmed on location in Israel, this iconic rock opera opens with a tour bus arriving near some ruins in the middle of the desert. A group of theater performers file out, don their respective costumes, and set out to reenact the last week of Jesus’ life. The theory behind this show was to portray Jesus like a contemporary celebrity, caught up in and bewildered by his fame. It also wisely chose to retell this famous tale from the perspective of Judas Iscariot, the Great Traitor and according to Webber and Rice, Jesus’ right-hand man. When we first meet him, Judas is having some serious doubts. Jesus seems to have gone power mad, letting the people think he’s actually the Messiah and refusing to give anybody a straight answer about anything. He’s also been hanging with Mary Magdalene a lot lately and Judas thinks she’s bad for the movement. Yet another movie where Mary Magdalene is incorrectly portrayed as a prostitute but what can you do? To make matters worse, the High Priests see Jesus as a threat and are eager to get rid of him. Meanwhile, Jesus is having some doubts of his own. Feeling his end drawing near and the weight of his mission bearing down, he isn’t sure what the point of it all is. When all is said and done, will he be remembered? Has he done anything worth remembering?
The story unfolds like it does in the Bible showing us the entrance into Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, the Last Supper, Gethsemane, the arrest, and finally, the crucifixion, but there is no dialogue; everything is sung. And the music is glorious. In my humble opinion, Andrew Lloyd Webber has never been as good as he was with Tim Rice (and doing shows based on the Bible). Like so many of my musical tastes, I inherited Jesus Christ Superstar from my mother who spent her teen years rocking out to the Original Studio Recording, or “the Brown Album” as she calls it. It informed my spirituality at a time when it was really hurting and it’s still a go-to when I need some consolation. The movie version provided the perfect visuals to go along with the album. The choice to film in the Israeli desert lends the film an air of authenticity and the cinematography is stunning. Some shots are so beautiful they make you want to pause the movie and just enjoy them the way you would a painting. Also Jewison tones down the violence, choosing instead to focus on the emotions at hand, which makes for a more indelible experience. The Crucifixion is one of the most unsettling pieces of music I’ve ever heard combining the sound of the nails being hammered with the laughter of the crowd, weeping, dissonant voices, and Jesus’ final words. And yet, there's no blood.
Superstar was quite controversial when it first came out and still is in some circles. Some find the idea of Jesus singing rock music (or singing period) offensive, while others think the modernity of the show implies a cavalier attitude. The movie drew additional controversy because Judas, the “villain,” is played by a black actor while Jesus is played, as usual, by a fair-haired white actor. However, in Superstar, Judas is not a villain. He’s a fleshed-out, human individual who is seriously concerned about Jesus’ intentions and sees handing him over to the authorities as the only option. Also Carl Anderson is so good in the role, I really can’t see anybody playing him. You see Judas’ pain, his love, his guilt, and his confusion. In song, no less. As for Jesus, Ted Neeley is quietly passionate with the weight of the world in his sad eyes. His rendition of Gethsemane (one of my all-time favorite songs), in which Jesus pours out his anger and doubt to God, is astounding. Jesus too is a complex, fully human character who, shockingly, does not want to die and isn’t convinced that he should. I think this is why so many people respond to the piece. Every character in Superstar is a multi-faceted individual: Mary Magdalene who loves Jesus even though she doesn’t understand him, the High Priests who see killing Jesus as the only way to keep their people safe, and Pilate who wants to help him but doesn’t know how. Even King Herod who serves as welcome comic relief shows surprising shades of gray. There’s also a fascinating element of fate in this movie. Everybody’s playing the role set out for them. Judas betrays Jesus because he has to. Jesus submits to death because he has to die. The characters all have free-will, but they all make the choices they are supposed to make. It’s fated and there’s nothing they can do. The movie drives this home by reminding us that these are not the actual characters we’re watching; they are performers acting out an ancient story.
"The Last Supper"
A word of warning! As you may have gathered, both of these movies bleed the 70’s. Three of the five men in Godspell have afros, including Jesus. During the title song in Jesus Christ Superstar, Judas gets backup from a trio of “angels” who evoke the Supremes and wear curly white fright wigs. However, though the costumes and hairstyles are dated, the material isn’t and if you can look past the more glaring crimes of that crazy era, you might discover an enjoyable, surprisingly powerful double feature.