A devil character delivers a bluesy recitative, a man blesses his followers on the banks of a desert river and then a tour bus cuts across the dusty terrain. It is the early 1970s, but this is not Jesus Christ Superstar. The film is Catch My Soul (directed by Patrick McGoohan), a rock opera adaptation of Othello set in a Santa Fe counter culture community. Seen by few until recently, the film closed within a week of its premiere in 1974 and then spent the last forty years in archival purgatory.
The premise of this adaptation, which screened at Northwestern University’s Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art last month, sounds strange and, even, ridiculous. Catch My Soul is a relic of its time, but no more so than West Side Story (1957) or Naham Tate’s Restoration-era History of King Lear (1681)—you know, the one where Cordelia lives. The setting is transported from sixteenth-century Venetian Cyprus to the American Southwest during the time of HAIR. Absent from the film are the accusations of unnatural seduction, epithets related to “the Moor,” and militarism. Still, the film remains true to the original play. It’s a tragedy of manipulation within an isolated community and the inevitable violence of a culture—even a counter culture—steeped in misogynist paranoia. The plot (spoiler alert) features an allegedly unfaithful new bride and some brief business with that wretched prop, a handkerchief forever embroidered with berries.
But Catch My Soul also presents a religious story as much as a Shakespearean one. The tragic hero (Richie Havens) serves as pastor of a desert Christian church and Iago (Lance LeGault) plots against him as Santa Fe Satan (the film’s alternative title). And if Desdemona (Season Hubley) has seemed martyr-like before, then this version actively portrays her passive canonization. She often appears on screen as one of the saints in Ade Bethune’s Catholic Worker woodcuts, patiently sewing and toiling as she contemplates God. Our final image of her is as a sacrificial icon.
In the introduction to the screening at the Block Museum, Dwayne Mann (a doctoral candidate in the Interdisciplinary PhD in Theatre and Drama program at Northwestern University) pronounced the film “the missing piece.” Catch My Soul shares a similar history with other rock musicals of the era, emerging first on stage in 1969, circulating as a cast album in 1971, and then, finally, premiering in its cinematic form in 1974, a year after Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell appeared on screen. As a film, Catch My Soul picks up on and enlarges the tropes of these other works. Godspell begins with baptisms in New York City and Jesus Christ Superstar opens and concludes with a tour bus in the Israeli desert. A tour bus in Catch My Soul remains on screen throughout the film. It’s painted completely black, but is full of stark, blinding white light inside and serves, in part, as a demonic retreat. At one point, Iago rolls around in Satanic fits with bloodshot eyes as he moves closer to orchestrating Desdemona’s death. Costumed in jeans and a suede vest, Iago croons his curses in a gravelly voice, but beneath the rock star is the medieval stock character who visits Eve in serpent form in the Old Testament and tempts Christ in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
Beyond the context of rock musical history, Catch My Soul reconfigures Shakespearean filmography from the sixties to the present. The film picks up where Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968) left off. Zeffirelli’s interpretation linked the tragedy to contemporary youth culture and gave religious undertones to the struggle of the star-crossed lovers. Baz Luhrmann extended Zeffirelli’s conceptual framework by saturating William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) with beach party machismo and Roman Catholic iconography. But the saints and crucifixes that form the sacred kaleidoscope of Luhrmann’s late-twentieth century production first appeared in Catch My Soul in simpler form. Compared to the montages of Luhrmann’s mega-church rock show, this desert Othello strums a low-fi Folk Mass. Indeed, Othello’s sudden demand of, “Have you prayed tonight?” in Act 5, scene 2 has never made more sense. It finally has a context beyond the everyday Christianity of Shakespeare’s stage. Called “pastor” by his followers, Othello wears a tunic and a large cross—a particular moment of him walking through the desert hill recalls Francis of Assisi in Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun and Sister Moon (1972)—as he builds a new church, sets up altars, and paints saintly scenes. When he enters his church with the resolve to punitively murder his wife, his faith in redemption continues to operate. Desdemona’s death not only occurs on the altar of the church, as Juliet’s would in Luhrmann’s nineties film, but also Othello surrenders her lifeless body to the outstretched arms of Christ on the cross. This is tragedy set apart from the rest of society, something other auteurs would explore in films such as Polanski’s Macbeth (1971) and Kristian Levring’s The King Is Alive (2000). But this one stands out in its earnest religiosity.
Beyond all this, the recent resurrection of Catch My Soul is a story in its own right. Panned by critics in 1974, the movie quickly disappeared from public view. Our access to the film, which is now available as a DVD/Blu-Ray combo pack, is owed largely to Samuel B. Prime. Less than a decade ago, Prime was an undergraduate student at Northwestern University. He became passionate about Catch My Soul during a project for a class on Shakespeare and Music. In an interview with Prime, he recalled that “the idea of a folksy, bluesy version of Othello” delighted him. Without the actual footage, he researched the film through its archival remains, including the soundtrack, the script and photographs. He wrote an honors thesis on Catch My Soul and then moved to Los Angeles to pursue graduate study in film preservation. Unlike the film’s original critics, Prime found that the film “was actually quite special.” He explained that “during its initial release, the film was too close to Jesus Christ Superstar to consider thoughtfully.” An avid cinephile, Prime dreamed of producing a home-release version and admitted that it “was in my mind from the moment I moved to LA.” It was just “a matter of figuring out the right partners to make it happen.” In 2014, he met the right person, Joe Rubin, co-founder of Vinegar Syndrome, a company dedicated to restoring cult exploitation films. Together, they pitched the project to 20th Century Fox and Catch My Soul was re-released through Etiquette Pictures in November 2015. Prime’s long-term dedication and collaborative spirit recalls the mission of past archivists and bibliographers, such as the Shakespeareans who formed the Malone Society in the early twentieth century. Thanks to this labor, we can all experience an important and nearly forgotten iteration of Shakespeare’s Othello. (For more on Prime’s restoration of Catch My Soul, check out this recent podcast interview.)
Gina Di Salvo is an assistant professor of theatre history and dramaturgy at the University of Tennessee. She is also a professional dramaturg and an Artistic Associate of Sideshow Theatre Company in Chicago.