A biblical school play favourite, Joseph might not be the first thing you’d think of watching on a Friday evening. But the 2000 direct-to-video film is camp, colourful, and boasts an all-star cast. Fan favourite Donny Osmond stars as Joseph, with Maria Friedman, Richard Attenborough, and Joan Collins as the Narrator, Jacob, and Mrs. Potiphar respectively.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s first biblically inspired musical, unlike its edgier successor Jesus Christ Superstar, sticks with the most basic version of the Joseph story. Joseph is Jacob’s favourite son, his brothers are jealous of him and his coat, sell him as a slave, then find him as a gold-bedecked bureaucrat in Egypt some years later. And if you’ve ever seen the stage show, or perhaps been in a school production of Joseph, the staging of the film will be very familiar.
Yet despite this, or perhaps because of it, the film is incredibly fun to watch. Everything is pushed to the absolute max. Joseph sings about corn? Dancers in blue morph suits and white tutus sway like corn behind him. ‘Go, Go, Go Joseph’ looks like a disco fever dream-cum-trip that’s more camp than the 2019 Met Gala, and literally everything in the Egypt numbers is gold – including, inexplicably, Pharaoh’s nipples.
There is, however, a bit of an elephant in the room when watching Joseph in 2020. Three songs in particular provide awkward reminders that Joseph was first written in 1968 for a school performance: ‘Potiphar’, ‘Close Every Door’, and ‘Benjamin Calypso’. In staged performances, the character of Potiphar’s Wife is often given a deep, masculine voice, but the film neatly avoids this transphobic element by surrounding a practically topless Joan Collins with more-or-less naked dancers, bringing up an entirely different but probably more palatable problem.
The same can’t be said for the definitely culturally insensitive ‘Benjamin Calypso’, which features Joseph’s brothers arguing for Benjamin’s innocence with similes like ‘Benjamin is honest as coconuts’. The film does a mediocre job at making ‘Benjamin Calypso’ appropriate, but it is undoubtedly the most uncomfortable song in the musical for the more socially aware viewer. The chorus of ‘Close Every Door’ could be uncomfortably Zionist for some, but ‘Benjamin Calypso’ walks a fine line between pastiche and racism.
The musical’s problematic elements do not detract from its entertainment value, but they should be acknowledged. And it should also be acknowledged that a readily available, direct-to-video film that can already be watched for free on YouTube (albeit as clips) probably wasn’t the best choice to debut ALW’s ‘The Shows Must Go On’. Once you know the film’s origins, this reads less as generosity and more as a cheap opportunity for some good publicity.
So, is Joseph worth watching? Absolutely. Despite its flaws, the 2000 film is a thoroughly enjoyable, if short, distraction from real life. ‘Any Dream Will Do’, which opens and closes the film, is uplifting and bittersweet, and the gaudy and camp numbers it bookends are, well, gaudy and camp. But Joseph doesn’t need much else.
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is available on ‘The Shows Must Go On!’ YouTube channel until 7pm Sunday, April 5th.