Director: Danny Green Cinematographer: Keith L. Smith
Reviewed by Simon B. 3.5/5
Having, just 2 weeks ago, watched, for the first time properly, the 1973 film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar (directed by Norman Jewison), I was intrigued to find myself reviewing a gospel musical that also retells the life of Jesus. Revival, written and produced by actor Harry Lennix (mostly recently seen in NBC’s The Blacklist), is a fresh and highly stylized take on the biblical tale that, like Lloyd Webber and Jewison’s production, combines contemporary language and music but still delivers a reasonably respectful look at the origins of Christianity. As well as plenty of newly written songs, the movie utilizes some very modern filming techniques and a mostly African American cast to set it apart from the often turgid big budget religious sword and sandal epics that have plagued Hollywood since the birth of the feature film.
“[Revival!] espouses a message of love and courage, something that can help comfort all of us as we process the chaos of daily life.”
– Harry Lennix, Writer of Revival!
Based on the Gospel of John, it’s ambitiously staged and like Jewison’s production begins with a group of actors/singers re-enacting the Passion of Christ. With a strong opening narration by Lennix, the story is told mainly in flashback and differs from Jesus Christ Superstar in that it combines location work with theatrical staging, while moving between contemporary and biblical settings. This was no doubt challenging for experienced director Danny Green (best known for directing The Tenants), but on the most part the transitions work well.
Central to the story, is of course, Christ himself. This part is taken by the aptly named Mali Music, a multi-talented singer/songwriter/producer who was once nominated for a Grammy, and has written the original music for the film. At one time it would have seemed particularly daring to cast a black actor as the son of God (remember Madonna’s video for ‘Like a Prayer’), but this no longer feels overly ground breaking and where does it say in the bible that Jesus is a thin white man with long brown hair and a beard? In terms of Music’s portrayal of the Messiah, he comes across a little too passive (even in his musical performances) and lacks the more human and vulnerable quality that’s seen in the work of Pasolini, Scorsese and Jewison. Even when tempted by the Devil, in some cleverly realized scenes (including being dared to jump off the Hollywood sign), there is never a question of him being a mere man. Of course, this otherworldy Jesus is probably what Lennix and Green were looking for, and to be fair to Music, he does retain a certain dignity throughout.
He is surrounded by a large supporting cast, most notably music icon Chaka Khan (shown left with Jeffrey Anderson-Gunter as Herod), who belts out a tune as Herodias, Herod’s wife, and who is duplicitous in the death of John the Baptist. Destiny’s Child’s Michelle Williams stands out as Mary Magdalene, and Lennix takes on another role with a sympathetic portrayal of Pontius Pilate. In fact, he overshadows Music in a pivotal scene despite only taking the role after Braveheart star Angus Macfadyen was not able to get to filming because a snowstorm cancelled his flight!
Lennix’s Pilate is depicted as almost blameless with the responsibility for Jesus’s demise once again placed with the Jews. This, of course, has been a matter of controversy for earlier films including Jesus Christ Superstar and more recently Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. Common consensus among the historical community is that it’s factually incorrect to blame the death of Jesus on the Jews and while Lennix is not attempting to provide a history lesson the film will no doubt cause offence to some. Then there’s the casting of a white actor as a villainous Judas, a character who is given none of the interesting ambiguity that we see in Jewison’s film (where black actor Carl Anderson was controversially cast as Judas).
Mali Music … Jesus
Harry Lennix … Pilate
Dawnn Lewis … Cleo
Paula Newsome … Mother Mary
Chaka Khan … Herodias
T’Keyah Crystal Keymáh … Rebah
Anthony Azizi … Judas Iscariot
Ahmed Ahmed … Satan
Michelle Williams … Mary Magdalen
Victoria Gabrielle Platt … The Temptress
Wendy Raquel Robinson … Woman With Blood Issue
Victoria Tilford … Rhoda
Roland Buck III … James / Malchus
Kirk Taylor … Cephas
Kenny Lattimore … Lazurus
Siedah Garrett … Phoebe
Ellis Hall … Master of the Feast
Niki J. Crawford … Adulterous Woman
Kevin Yarbrough … Thomas
Kevin Thompson … Hiram
Dwain A. Perry … Caiaphas
Gerald Johnson … John the Apostle
Jeffrey Anderson-Gunter … Herod
Obba Babatundé … Nicodemus
Holly Davis Carter … Designated Mourner
David Waite … Stage Manager
Beau Williams … Soldier
What can’t be questioned here is the obvious sincerity behind the film, a production that, in all probability, would never have seen the light of day had it not been for Lennix’s casting in the NBC hit The Blacklist. A familiar face on US television for some years, he had become disillusioned with having to audition in front of casting directors half his age and almost quit. So his own revival appears to have returned his enthusiasm for the industry and given him some finance to push this project forward. What struck me by end of the film was, that despite the attempt at innovative staging, including an extensive use of green screen, and the heightened and surreal moments, the film maintains a respectful tone and is particularly audience friendly. While there are some songs that will be quickly forgotten and none are likely to have the lasting impact of Lloyd Webbers’, the best of the music is still vibrant, soulful and adds energy to the story. It’s clearly the sort of film that will inspire black communities of faith in America and elsewhere. So will it find its audience? With the success of the Marvel superhero film, Black Panther, which also features a mostly black cast, and the huge viewing figures that films about faith tend to garner, Lennix clearly hopes so and so do I.
Directed by Danny Green
Produced by Harry Lennix, Holly Carter, David C. Waite
Screenplay by Harry Lennix, Holly Carter
Music by ELEW (score), Mali Music
Cinematography Keith L. Smith
Edited by Alexander Tuschinski
Running time 105 minutes
*TriCoast Entertainment will release REVIVAL onto various digital & DVD platforms March 3 (Amazon, iTunes, FLIXFLING, Vimeo on Demand, Vudu, FANDANGO, Google Play), Walmart, Target and Best Buy. **For more information, please visit: https://revivalthemovie.com/