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Godspell (1973)

July 12th 2014
Intro by Lee Gambin
Writer / Author and Cinemaniacs founder
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OK. So I’m going to quickly tell you how my obsession with the film you’re about to see started. And I think it’s very safe to call my love for the film an obsession. When I was a kid I was very much attracted to a lot of films and a lot of television and something I adored were holiday specials or films that were seasonal, and my favorites were of course the endless slew of Christmas specials.

But one day, back in the 80s, I would have been about six or seven, I was in my lounge room playing with toy dinosaurs and He-Man figures and it was around Easter time and I asked my sister who was probably getting ready for a daytime date why there weren’t as many Easter specials or Easter themed movies as there were Christmas themed ones and she told me that that day Channel 9 were going to play a film that was always played around Easter time in America and that film was GODSPELL.

I was like “What is GODSPELL?” and she briefly explained that it was a modern retelling of Jesus’s life. Now even at that young age I thought that’s weird and intriguing, I was already a fan of religious epics such as those of Cecil B. DeMille and the like, so I decided to pack up my dinosaurs and He-Man figures and let GODSPELL entertain me. Now I don’t remember what exactly I saw from it, possibly a scene very early on where the clowns are just getting done up in their garb, but I do remember the feeling – this film haunted me. It fucked with me and it did something that I never and will never shake off. It made me feel weird and uneasy but it was also ridiculously seductive, I couldn’t deal with it. Not even ten minutes into this film I started nervously chatting to my sister and that annoyed her, as it should, so she turned the TV off and told me to go play outside as she left to go hang out with her boyfriend. I never saw the entire film. Years passed and I started hunting down everything I could find out about GODSPELL, I found pictures from the Off-Broadway production and numerous other productions, I found a script for the musical in my old drama department at high school and stole it, I collected pictures cutting them out from reference books at local libraries and then of course bought every single available copy of the soundtrack, the first of course being the original cast recording. But the film remained elusive! I couldn’t find it anywhere. It was not released for years! Then in 1997 and on Good Friday Channel 9 played it and I taped it and watched it over and over again. Then years later my friend and fellow Cinemaniac Anthony got me a copy of it on DVD for my birthday and fucking hell that’s been one of the most used present I’ve ever received.

Now, currently I’m working on a book all about 70s movie musicals, and of course GODSPELL will feature in that. Part of writing about the film included me getting in touch with people who worked on the movie, which I think is pretty cool. Anyways, I’d like to read a bit from this book-to-be and then share a couple of quotes from people who worked on the movie.

From “We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals from the 1970s”:

“One of the most moving moments in the film is also the most dramatically grim and theatrical in the purest sense of the word, it comes very late in the piece where the Christ-clown instructs his disciples to remove their make-up. Firstly the John the Baptist/Judas Iscariot composite removes his blood red lightning bolt and then hands out rags and make-up remover to the other clowns as Jesus insists they take off their clown-face. Gilmer begins the procession, and soon enough the rest follow through. After this sequence, the inevitable Last Supper moment occurs and then set to the sombre music of “On The Willows” Christ embraces each disciple, delivering his farewell. The scene is extraordinarily depressing – it is a case of the clowns having to remove their pretty little face paint in order to be re-introduced into the “real” world; the soulless rat race they had rejected at the beginning of the film.

When one of the clowns tries to take off Jesus’s make-up he is quickly stopped. The film insists that Jesus will remain a clown until his impending death, after all, in a surprisingly bleak musical like Godspell, there is no room for this charismatic minstrel messiah to live and function in the “real” world; the rats of the rat race would eat him up, ignore his teachings or ridicule him.

The religious aspect of the film is ultimately the structured background to what truly is a film about the celebration of community and the coming together outside of the masses. But with all this joy and frivolity comes a price and Godspell, much like its cynical and angry relative Jesus Christ Superstar, reads like a metaphoric or even literal staging of an elaborate suicide. The messiahs in these films die without any resurrection and the downbeat ending of Godspell is not only surprising, but it is also unnerving and devastating. After this frivolity and sentimental acknowledgment of togetherness and compassionate companionship there is nothing left to go back to but the cold mess of normalcy and conformity. It’s as if Christ’s message told through his vaudeville shtick is rendered meaningless and unnecessary, and his disciples, who carry his limp dead boy off camera, disappear into the city, also rendered unimportant and invisible, just like Christ’s message.”

So even in the film’s simplicity there is real complicated ideas which make it incredibly interesting.

I’d like to quote from one of the actresses from the movie Gilmer McCormick who was very candid about the director David Greene. She told me, “As much as I had admired some of David Greene’s films, I didn’t think he was the right director for Godspell. First of all he was British, and this musical was at heart a homage to American street theatre, so I don’t think he really got it. David was not an easy man to work with. He was completely out of his element. You would sometimes catch him scrambling about, desperately trying to search for something and fumbling throughout the shoot. I think he was lost. He was also a long time alcoholic and was drunk throughout the shoot. We all played around with drugs and drank back then, that was a given, but when it came to work we were very professional, but David was an angry drunk and I just thought he was a poor choice and he was not at all nurturing to any of the cast.” Producer Edgar Lansbury also resented the fact that a lot of critics described the clowns from Godspell as hippies, and I quote “I don’t think the way we finally presented them was ever remotely close to hippiedom. They were most certainly minstrel clowns. That was the famous stage conception. Costumer Susan Tsu did the theatre design and was very influential in the film’s look. She was not there a lot of the time as she had another job to do. The visual concept had really arrived with David Greene and our designer on the film and it was a joint agreement on how it should look. And the clown influence was a prevalent one. Although there are critics and movie fans out there that still think that these kids were a bunch of hippies. I never thought this was the case.”

Of course as much as I love GODSPELL, and many other film critics loved it, there were some who despised it. Notorious critic Pauline Kael wrote, and I quote: “GODSPELL presents us with the last of the flower children put to screen and these grubby mugging menaces need to be buried and turned into compost as soon as possible. The film is completely out of step with the times, a film like EASY RIDER has said all that needs to be said about the youth counter culture of the late 60s and GODSPELL, here in 1973, embarrassingly looks like a relic already. It may have come from an extremely successful Off-Broadway musical, but this film is an even more sophomoric SESAME STREET at its best. Godspell is quite simply God-awful.”

Some people just don’t understand.