For some reason, the early '70s produced a handful of religious rock operas, most notably Andrew Lloyd Webber's Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar and John-Michael Tebelak's Godspell, the 1973 film version of which has just been released on video for the first time. Why exactly rock, the musical, and God's Holy Word joined forces during that period isn't clear. Maybe, after its peak in the late '60s, members of the counterculture started looking for ways to resolve their new values with their traditional religious upbringing. Or maybe both creators and audience were too stoned to know that a Biblical rock musical is an inherently silly proposition. Regardless of how it looked at the time, Godspell looks absolutely ridiculous today. The film, like the play upon which it was based, replays the Gospel of Matthew on the streets of New York. Godspell opens when some ordinary New Yorkers encounter an impish John The Baptist (David Haskell), who is also, in one of the film's odder turns, Judas. In a fit of religious fervor which will last the course of the movie, they immediately cast off their workaday lives to begin frolicking, singing, and generally behaving like toddlers in the grips of a Kool Aid buzz. This continues after the arrival of Jesus, played by veteran Broadway and Titanic actor Victor Garber. Garber is a good actor, but it's difficult to discern that when he's playing Jesus as a wide-eyed, mime-like, suspenders- and Superman-shirt-clad hippie. With the help of his disciples, Garber reenacts key incidents and parables from the Gospel by way of numerous embarrassing skits played as slapsticky, pseudo-vaudevillian comedy; it's like watching The Gospel According To Laugh-In. To be fair, there are a handful of okay rock-gospel songs here, particularly the hit single "Day By Day," but there's very little else to account for Godspell's strangely enduring popularity as a play. Maybe the broad gestures, colorful costumes, and exaggerated acting worked in the theater. As a movie, it's actively, fascinatingly terrible, with a vision of Christ more likely to instill in viewers a fear of traveling bands of loony street performers than a desire to embrace the Holy Spirit.
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