He sang Celine Dion’s Love Can Move Mountains on the trolley, American Idol winner Phillip Phillips’s Home through the streets of the French Quarter, and Creed’s With Arms Wide Open in the park where Jesus and his apostles had their last supper and then slept rough
Fox’s take on the story of the crucifixion comes live from New Orleans, with the aid of pop music and some inescapably campy production choices
For anyone who grew up in a Christian household, the story of the crucifixion is absolutely familiar. However, The Passion, Fox’s live retelling of that story with the help of pop stars and modern music, made it seem like the most confounding experience imaginable. The live TV show, whose format was first tried in the Netherlands, was a bizarre combination of live concert film, news report and the kind of DVD that a youth minister of a megachurch would play to try to make religion appeal to kids.
Logistically it must have been a nightmare to broadcast. Gospel impresario Tyler Perry played “host and storyteller” for the event (though, in fairness, the storytellers were really Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), which was broadcast live from his hometown of New Orleans. (A friend of mine who lives there texted to say that the French Quarter was a traffic nightmare.)
The stage, replete with a multicultural chorus of singers, also featured Tricia Yearwood playing Mary – which generally consisted of her standing in a blue dress and belting out songs like Whitney Houston’s Your Love Is My Love and Hands by Jewel
On the glowing white stage, Perry reminded us of the final days of Jesus’s life while gospel singer Yolanda Adams sang David Guetta and Kelly Rowland’s When Love Takes Over, a number I’ve heard more frequently in gay discos than choir lofts.
We left the main stage frequently for pre-taped music video-style re-enactments of Jesus’s journey. Played by telenovela star Jencarlos Canela, Jesus was dressed in modern clothing and looked more like a Bourbon Street busker than the son of God. In another bit of synergy with American Idol, the Fox show’s also-ran Chris Daughtry played Judas, dueting with Jesus on Imagine Dragons’ Demons of all things.
These recorded bits were well shot but terribly static. There was little movement or dancing, just mugging for the camera like the choirmaster would do from the pulpit even though he’s not singing a song that ever had a lyric video on YouTube. Hearing the songs, with different voices and arrangements, was always a little bit odd. The feeling of hearing a familiar melody in different surroundings was less like having a religious experience and more like listening to an awful radio station while waiting for the dentist.
That shouldn’t detract from the capabilities of the performers, however, who gave it their all, particularly Canela, who certainly impressed the millions of non-Spanish speakers discovering him for the first time. Seal, dressed in a suit and tie, played Pontius Pilate and was also excellent, though Tina Turner’s We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome) seemed like an odd fit for the festivities given its origin in a Mad Max movie.
In the most jarring segments of the evening, the cameras followed the progress of a 20ft illuminated cross that made its way from the Superdome, made infamous in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, to the stage on the banks of the Mississippi river where the stage was set up. Reporter Nischelle Turner was on hand to talk to the growing procession of civilians who carried the cross to its final destination.
Her interviews, which were meant to seem spontaneous but were clearly pre-screened, were odd. First she talked to a man who said of the event: “It’s a procession based on strength that is rooted in love. It’s a love that’s deeper than all of us. It’s larger than I am in my military service.” In a reerican values, the telecast took time to thank the “service of our troops”. But then, in the next breath, Turner interviewed a black mother who said: “For me this means justice, peace and healing … and [Jesus] will bring justice, peace, and healing to my son Keyshawn Anthony Bell, who was senselessly murdered … three years ago.”
To go so quickly from patriotism to #BlackLivesMatter in a matter of seconds was a bit dizzying, but the same could be said for the entire event, which was meant to jam the Christian commonalities of the nation’s devout evangelical, black and Latino populations into one slender show.
Nevertheless, it seemed to work quite well. #ThePassionLive was the top trending topic in Twitter in the country while it was airing (though it did have to compete with two other American institutions: March Madness and The Walking Dead) where plenty of people were shouting their support for the extravaganza on social media. The emotions at the live event were certainly high, as the cameras cut to tear-stained faces and the crowd cheered when Jesus was finally resurrected. As has happened in countless religious ceremonies, he celebrated by singing a Katy Perry song.
For those of us at home who don’t have the faith, the campiness of the spectacle couldn’t be escaped. It wasn’t bad, necessarily, but pop music and scripture make about as much sense side by side as serving a well-done steak with a huge scoop of vanilla ice cream on top.
It was certainly another triumph for Fox, which showed up NBC’s live musicals with its cinematic and energized Grease Live in January. The production was magnificent and the talent undeniable, but how it was received depends heavily on the beliefs and biases of the individual viewers. That said, The Passion is like nothing else on television ever, which is both a curse and a blessing for everyone involved, whether you go to church every Sunday or haven’t even been once.