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New Video presents
The Gospel at Colonus (1985)

"What ground is this? What law is honored here?"
- Messenger (Morgan Freeman)

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: December 10, 2008

Stars: Morgan Freeman, Isabell Monk, Carl Lumbly, Robert Earl Jones, Jevetta Steele, Kevin Davis
Director: Lee Breuer, Kirk Browning

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:27m:30s
Release Date: November 18, 2008
UPC: 715515033923
Genre: musical

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
C C+CB- D-

DVD Review

On some level, this is an extraordinarily clever act of multiculturalism, and you've got to applaud the effort. If that sounds like faint praise, it's because it sort of is—this is an ambitious project, but in a number of respects, falls between the cracks. You've got to appreciate a project that cannot be easily categorized, but it all somehow feels like less than the sum of its parts; you realize that None Of The Above is finally a pretty unsatisfactory answer.

The conceit of the piece is striking: it's a retelling of Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, but rather than a revival of the ancient Greek tragedy, the story is told as a gospel revival meeting, the subject of this Sunday's sermon, if you will. The great Morgan Freeman presides—he's the reverend in the church, more or less, and though he doesn't have much of a singing voice, it's no surprise to see him as nothing less than charismatic. There are some other inspired casting choices as well—collectively the Blind Boys of Alabama play Oedipus, the king who has gouged out his own eyes after the awful revelation about his family, one that has kept Freudians in business for generations; and a group billed as the Original Soul Stirrers contribute powerfully as well. (I'm not so sure about the "original" moniker, however, as the Soul Stirrers were the gospel quartet with which Sam Cooke first came to prominence almost fifty years ago.)

But on a couple of fronts, the project feels uneasy. Unless you're a classics major preparing for exams, Sophocles' plot may elude you, and even the choice of this particular Greek play feels like an odd one. In some respects, Oedipus at Colonus is all aftermath—the signature moments, I'd argue, come in Sophocles' previous play, Oedipus Rex, and here we're asked to take a little too much for granted, I think. (It's like deciding to make a musical out of The Godfather, Part II for an audience that may be largely ignorant of its predecessor.) Similarly, Bob Telson's score has its share of respectable gospel tunes, but nothing here really blows the roof off the joint—if you come in looking for Mahalia Jackson-inflected tragic epiphanies, you're likely to be disappointed. Similarly, the production, originally broadcast on PBS, suffers from the horrible oxymoron of having been taped live. The jolt of energy of a live performance, a proscenium theater transformed into a Pentecostal church, a huge gospel choir singing to the rafters, doesn't make it through the camera; and the television shoot is pedestrian, so there are no visual pyrotechnics to match the emotions of the piece, nor the you-are-there sense that comes with the best concert films. (It's also worth mentioning that the Philadelphia audience in front of whom this was taped seems particularly tepid.)

You can also see some unfortunate mid-1980s fashion choices, like fades on many of the men, and purple gloves on the Soul Stirrers; twinned with some of ye olde diction to give it a feel of high seriousness, you sometimes think that what sounds like a great idea in theory doesn't really play out so well in practice.

Rating for Style: C
Rating for Substance: C+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Lots of contrast can make this a tough watch from time to time—some of the garish costume colors shine like crazy with the limited resolution here.

Image Transfer Grade: C


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: It sounds better than it looks, which is a blessing; still, dynamics are limited, and there's some buzzing on too many of the top notes.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Only chapter stops.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

The spirit may move you from time to time in this cross-cultural, postmodern musical, but unfortunately it's too inconsistent and tepid to recommend.


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