Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1999)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Donny Osmond, Maria Friedman, Richard Attenborough, Joan Collins


Was this title ever in the running for this retelling of the Bible story of Joseph? Probably not, although that’s precisely what this story’s all about.

Joseph is the one who has a dream about corn stalks. He tells his family his take on it, namely that he’ll one day lord it over them all. Not surprisingly, his want of tact brings down upon him adversity as only the Old Testament can serve it. Ironically, Joseph is ultimately delivered up to the leader of known world whose own dream about corn will fulfill Joseph’s original prophecy!

Rock opera first invaded North America around 1969 with "Tommy" by The Who and "Jesus Christ Superstar" with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice. Though immensely popular on disk, producers scratched their heads to think how they could capitalize on all this success by staging these works. Meantime, critics sniped that ’rock opera’ turned out to be neither rock nor opera.

The term originated with "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," where it is equally inappropriate. ’Burlesque oratorio’ would put a finer spin on it. Dealing with it as such might have sped up meeting the challenge of its presentation on stage.

Much is made of the origins of "Joseph." A bland 30-minute-plus ’making of’ documentary accompanying this DVD mythologizes the work’s beginnings as a children’s school performance piece. (Although it is indicated that the show originally ran a scant twenty minutes, how much of that twenty minutes remains in today’s package is anybody’s guess!) The production evolved over a complex international history that this documentary barely skims. The documentary has in all about ten minutes worth of solid information, five if you’ve read the DVD’s three brief print information files that follow the documentary on the bonus feature menu. Even here, the backgrounding is more interesting for what it omits about the germination of the edition of "Joseph" with Donny Osmond that this video immortalizes. In a nutshell, it is this:

Canadian entrepreneur Garth Drabinsky had, amongst other dubious achievements, revolutionized movie-going with the introduction of mini-theatres that proliferated in the 1980s. Scandal reduced Drabinsky’s empire to one old theatre in downtown Toronto. He renovated it and revised his empire-building plans to embrace live theatre instead of movies.

Drabinsky initiated a collaboration right off the bat with the Webber/Rice team. Soon this yielded huge international touring successes with "Phantom of the Opera" and "Sunset Boulevard." What distinguished these productions were their massive size and revolutionary production techniques. Scenery and costumes were subtle and naturalistic. Staging effects were state-of-the-art. Acoustically-tailored sound systems allowed for uncommon intimacy.

Unfortunately, as with Drabinsky’s revolution in the cinema, his dodgy ledgers caught up with him and his second empire came tumbling down as well. Perhaps it is the ignominy of Garth Drabinsky and his Livent production company’s abrupt demise in 1998 that this DVD makes no mention of him whatsoever.

Yet this production is indirectly derived from Drabinsky’s from 1992, which introduced Donny Osmond to the lead role he played more or less continuously until he retired from it as of this 1999 film adaptation. David Mallet directed the London Palladium edition of "Joseph" we see here and it was Steven Pimlott who adapted it for this direct-to-video release. It is apt that the two directors are listed in tandem since what can be attributed to whom is undetectable.

It’s hard to believe that Donny Osmond played Joseph for six years before this adaptation. Maybe opening it up for film has something to do with it. Osmond seizes upon the slenderest pretexts (in his scenes with Pharoah, for instance) to be engagingly dopey, envigorating the material with wonderful spontaneity. What’s more, his mean turn in dealing with his brothers latterly in the show invests more depth than it probably deserves.

The shallowness of the concept does not allow for the development of any character apart from Joseph. Richard Attenborough as Joseph’s father Jacob has little more than a cameo. In a production that thrives on overkill, Joan Collins (no stranger to the part of an Egyptian tart) gets even shorter shrift as Mrs. Potiphar. After all, this section of the story alone has often been mined to great effect in, as in the Richard Strauss ballet, "Josephs Legende."

Tim Rice’s lyrics have always drawn fire for their seeming banality, which has always helped deflect attention from the music which was sniffed at as derivative. Yet Rice’s contribution is sly and often witty. He also condenses pretty much the entire complicated Biblical account into 78 minutes. But those 78 minutes feel like more, mainly because the twenty-one successive musical numbers (some of which are reprises) are mostly solos and lack drama in and of themselves. Webber’s music is the product of a sharp ear for mimicry, each number so different in character that it affords no continuity. That leaves spectacle alone to drive the production. "Joseph" does stun the senses, but feels like long haul. Rather like the time you might expect it to take humungous stone blocks to be assembled into a pyramid.

Being a film enables the production to revisit its roots as a show for school kids, which it does to quasi-satirical effect. On DVD, we experience it as a surreal hybrid of real world, stage and soundstage. Fortunately, this is an exceptionally happy meld. The production uses the artificiality of the proscenium arch, but steps boldly free of its constraints at will. It does so to frequently grandiose effect, yet at any moment it can assume an intimacy impossible on the stage.

The image has the look of high-definition video, but we’re led to believe it was a direct-to-video celluloid movie shot multi-camera using video techniques. I felt mildly uncomfortable with the picture throughout. It was as if it had been shot at somewhere around 1.77:1 but, for whatever reason, squeezed instead to the curious aspect ratio of 1.55:1. The <$16x9,anamorphic>ally enhanced picture is vivid with minimal video noise and no artifacting or detectable edge enhancement. It is fairly sharp, but not to the degree you’d expect when shot under controlled studio conditions.

Considering the program length, even factoring in the 30-minute-odd schlokumentary, the competing <$DTS,DTS> soundtrack must really gobble up disk space if the skimpy contents require a <$RSDL,dual-layer> disk. The <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 (the only one I’m wired for) really goes to town. Surrounds are used more to add body to the sound than to draw attention to any particular effect. This seems wholly appropriate. The overall sound is rich, full and warm. I only noticed a couple of slight, fleeting instances of distortion at 32:28, but these were a-typical of the audio production. This soundtrack rocks! But then, I guess that was the point.

Like gorging on cotton candy, the after effect of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" may not be agreeable to all tummies. If you’ve got the stomach for it, though, this adaptation – what with its legs straddling stage and video – is probably the ultimate experience of it. Outside of a public school performance of it, that is.