I know lots of evangelical people who don’t like Godspell. They didn’t like it 35 years ago, and they don’t like it now.
To me, Godpsell was a transformational moment in time. I saw it the first time at the Bayview Playhouse in Toronto. I think a young Paul Shafer (from the David Letterman Show) may have been the keyboard player. The classic story in my black, leather-bound, King James Version bible suddenly exploded on stage in the rock music of my generation.
I’d seen the movie when it first came out, but hadn’t seen it since. When Columbia Pictures released the anniversary edition, I couldn’t resist buying one. I decided the other night to just watch the opening song; after all, it was nearly 10 PM. I ended up watching the whole thing.
Let me say at this point, I’d love to sit down and watch this with a group of pastors and leaders. Each of us would have a legal pad, and the time indicator on the DVD player would be visible. We would jot notes and note the time of each reflection or observation; and then for several hours after we would discuss the things we considered in the movie chronology in which we noted them. There is much to think about here.
Knowing what I know now, I saw things in the movie that I know not to not be Biblically accurate. But the Christ story stands up well, whatever you do to it. It’s a hard story to wreck. I loved the part where the disciples are “called out” of their everyday routines, just as today the “ecclesia” are called out to be Christ followers. I liked the idea of putting all the accusations of the Pharasees in a single “Wizard of Oz” type confrontation wtih Jesus. I liked the idea of including both male and female actors in the inner circle. I was challenged with the concept of placing the wilderness temptation’s three questions in the scene in the garden just before Christ’s arrest.
But the disciples were chosen by Jesus, not simply ‘drawn’ to him by some invisible magic. The Pharsees’ confrontations were part of an ongoing strategy to prove or disprove his messiahship. The inner twelve were male. The wilderness temptation was at the outset of Christ’s ministry years, not at the end.
I know all that. But the story, the joy, the grace, the huge amount of the screenplay that is directly lifted from the pages of scripture; …it’s hard not to resonate positively with all that.
Some of the songs improve on the movie. “All Good Gifts” tries desperately to get away from its operatic (i.e. very non-contemporary) sound on the original soundtrack. The song unique to the movie, “Beautiful City,” continues to strike me as completely out of place. “Day by Day” continues as the anthem of Godspell.
Visually, the movie brings an entirely new dimension to the Prodigal Son story; probably my favorite scene this time around. Then there’s the costumes: 35 years ago — actually a few years earlier when the stage production opened — the biggest objection to the production was the casting of Jesus as a “clown.” Try as I might, I still don’t see it that way. I see brightly colored costumes on all the disciples, with makeup applied as a ‘mark’ of being part of Jesus’ tribe. But Jesus himself removes the makeup to send the disciples back into the world that will await them when he is no longer with them.
I only wish the movie had a resurrection scene. That’s the biggest drawback. He was who he said he was, and he proved it by his triumph over death. Godspell, the movie, ends with the disciples bearing the body of Jesus. Nearly four decades removed from the original, it’s hard to say what intent was behind that decision. If he hadn’t risen from death’s grip, would there be any interest in his story 2000 years later?