This Christmas musical fails to hit the right chords, says Tim Bechervaise
Have you ever wondered what a Christmas musical in the style of Glee and High School Musical might look like? It sounds rather outlandish, but it has now hit our cinema screens, and it’s everything you’d likely expect it to be.
A Journey to Bethlehem is billed as an “all-singing, all-dancing retelling of the greatest story ever told”. It is a live-action musical – stretching just over an hour-and-a-half – weaving together original and reworked traditional songs with a creative take on the Nativity story.
Academy Award nominee Antonio Banderas stars as King Herod and Christian rapper Lecrae plays the angel Gabriel. Stephen Curtis Chapman also features on the soundtrack.
As with many artistic takes on biblical stories, a fair bit of creative license is used. This includes the backstory to Mary and Joseph’s union. After a serendipitous encounter in the marketplace, the two teenagers discover that they’ve been matched by their parents, something neither are initially enthralled by, particularly Mary. She dreams of being a teacher, while Joseph is an inventor who wants to “change the world”. Can they make it work? They begin by singing a song that asks that very question.
Unsurprisingly, their relationship is a key thread in the musical. This helpfully reinforces their humble backgrounds, while providing a platform to explore the agonising dilemma faced by Joseph following news of Mary’s pregnancy. However, the approach is overdone in places, giving the musical a romanticised tone that detracts from the overarching story.
Other factors chip away at this, too. The angel Gabriel’s earth-shattering appearance to Mary isn’t that, well, earth-shattering. We first see him rehearsing lines as Mary sleeps, before bumping his head. It will get a few laughs but, ultimately, it is distracting and anti-climactic. The impact of the moment is lost. The same could be said for the Magi, who are more witty than wise.
Most jarring of all is King Herod, who spends a lot of the time either drunk or suffering from nightmares. The performance verges on the parodic and feels out of kilter with the rest of the production.
The musical is also sanitised in places. The manger is too orderly and clean, and Mary looks as if she enjoys a rather speedy recovery from the pregnancy. By underplaying the squalor of the Nativity, the contrast of Jesus’ arrival as the light of the world is sadly diluted.
This is not helped by what the musical omits of the events that follow Jesus’ birth. The film shows a young Jesus having a “scripture lesson”, but what of the dangerous flight to Egypt and King Herod’s devastating murder of firstborns? Admittedly, the latter is not the most musical-friendly, but as The Prince of Egypt demonstrated, darker moments can be portrayed appropriately and powerfully. Instead, the family are shown wistfully leaving Bethlehem, with Mary and Joseph sharing their first kiss. The ending feels underwhelming and unfinished.
The songs are arguably the musical’s strongest feature, even if some lyrics veer into soppiness. Notable among them is Mary’s ‘Mother to a saviour and king’, a beautiful, intense refrain that encapsulates the gravitas of her situation. “Should a miracle feel like an anchor bringing shame upon my family”, she laments. “This burden is too heavy. I need strength to be a mother to a saviour and king.”
Traditional carols are also used effectively. Most striking is ‘O come, o come, Emmanuel’ which leads into ‘Journey to Bethlehem’, a foot-stomping Middle Eastern number that incorporates wording from ‘O come, all ye faithful’.
Overall, Journey to Bethlehem makes for a novel and fun retelling of the Christmas story. It will provide good, snuggly family viewing over the festive period, as well as being a welcome tool for those working with young people, sparking conversations about the true meaning of Christmas. The soundtrack may also be a feature of many households – which, given the lyrical strength of many of the songs, is definitely a positive (and a welcome antidote to the usual festive tunes).
But sadly, the musical is unlikely to become a classic, as the makers hope. To be that, it needs to have a deeper and more enduring impact. A film like this can be all-singing and all-dancing while conveying the meaning of that first Christmas. But it’s a delicate balance, and Journey to Bethlehem hasn’t quite got it right. The weighty, wondrous significance of why Jesus came is lost amid the fuzzy sentimentality.
Journey to Bethlehem is in UK cinemas now