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Godspell (1973)

"Before viewing" talks introduce the film without spoilers. Watch it, then click on the "After viewing" talk for more. More»» by Randy Heffner

Playfully serious, musically excellent, and rich in spirit, Godspell romps through New York City exploring and embodying wisdom for life and relationships from the Bible’s Gospel According to Matthew. Set in 1973, Jesus

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"After viewing" talks assume that you have seen the film. They will contain spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

It must have been about the third time that I watched Godspell — over the space of 30 years or so — that I finally was able the feel the full joy of the film. I had come finally to understand the how the film embodies the critical depth of life (as opposed to religion) that Jesus had come to lead his disciples (and us) into, and I came away strengthened, maybe I should say emboldened, to live with that type of love and life — at least in as many moments of my life as I can. And hopefully more of those moments each day.

A preamble to my reflections on the film

Part of the reason I finally “got” Godspell is that I had grown and changed as a Christian in the intervening years, and this allowed me to come at the film from a new angle. Previously, I had enjoyed its music, but had not connected deeply with its playfulness. Previously — and bear with me here because what I’m about to say may immediately raise hairs on the backs of some Christians’ necks — I had seen the heart of the Christian life as though obedience were the main goal and life was the result. Since then, I have come, through verses like John 10:10 and Jeremiah 31:33, to understand that God’s main desire is for us to have full life, and that the Bible’s focuses on obedience simply as the best way to find the deep beauty, wonder, and pleasure that leads to full life. This turn of perspective freed me to engage with Godspell’s childlike joie de vivre, even at the few times that it might go a tad overboard.

In a sense, Godspell’s plot is quite simple: A quick opening, a quick ending, and a fat middle:

  • Opening: A man (John) says that a Great Teacher is coming, calling those who are ready and able to hear. The Teacher comes, gathering his disciples around him.
  • Fat middle: He teaches his disciples and orchestrates their creativity into a extended series of skits and songs that illustrate all manner of wisdom about life, relationships, and spirituality. One of the later skits shows how his teaching angers religious leaders by upending their religion with his spirituality.
  • Ending: The religious leaders, with the help of one of the disciples, have the Teacher arrested and killed. His disciples are initially shocked, but this gives way to joyous songs of life as they carry the Teacher (literally and figuratively) back to the hustle of daily New York City life.

Although the "fat middle" is most of the film's content, the three parts play equally in the film's world. The opening establishes that each of the disciples is one who is ready to hear, open to and looking for something beyond a self-centered, peer-pressured daily grind. It's not just a randomly selected cast of characters, but rather hearts that are ready to hear and learn. The ending shows that it was not just an interlude of fun and games then back to the old life, but that Jesus' teaching changes the disciples. They carry him back into their lives, "day by day" seeking to follow more closely, and carry him to the city and the bustling mass of humanity.

What does the "fat middle" tell us?

The "fat middle" makes reading Godspell is different from reading a typical film because it doesn't have a linear (or even non-linear) sequence of characters in life situations. It's just a series of skits that, at first blush, might have been in any order. We get only the slightest glimpse of the disciples before Jesus and we don't see them back in their normal lives after Jesus so, beyond the joy they have going back into the City, we can't say much about how their time with Jesus changed their daily lives. But we can remember and reflect on key life insights that they could take away from the songs, stories, and wisdom Jesus led them in. Some of the major points include:

  • Jesus starts by painting a unique sign on each disciple's face, in a sense "naming" each of them — and giving them a visible sign of their membership in the community as they learn from him. Names are hugely significant to us, so this is a deeply intimate way for Jesus to connect with each disciple.
  • As he is "naming" them, Jesus quotes verses that make clear that his teaching has its foundation in God's ways as expounded in the Bible.
  • Jesus' own face markings capture well his identity. On his forehead, a heart signifying "God is love" as the central foundation of his ways. Below each eye, a stylized black tear-streak marking him as a man of sorrows — who came not as proud victor but rather as humble servant.
  • In the first parable they play, the Pharisee and the tax collector, the disciples learn that a religious appearance means nothing, but rather they should have a deep heart-sense that they are not righteous and good.
  • The song "Day by Day" gives voice to the cry of this deep heart-sense: That "getting right" is a matter of seeing the ways of God more clearly (which is what the "fat middle" is all about), actually loving God's ways (not merely knowing them), and then letting that love flow into following and living God's ways (not out of duty or command).
  • The "turn the other cheek" incident flips their notions of revenge upside down, extending love to the offender rather than retribution.
  • The parable of the sheep and the goats broadens their notion of loving and serving God to the immense beauty and significance of loving and serving all people in need.
  • In the amphitheater, after singing "Bless the Lord", the call and response rendering of what is called the beatitudes gives the discples another cache of "upside down" wisdom — God's ways, the ways of love, are often the opposite of our human tendencies.
  • With the stories and teaching complete and the day nearing its end, they dance their way back to the junkyard. They sing "Beautiful City", expressing how they want their new learning to influence the world toward renewal and restoration. It starts with their community, spreading and building from there — they can see "nations rise in each other's eyes."
  • At the Last Supper re-enactment, Jesus washes his marks from the disciple's faces, a parallel to Jesus washing the disciples feet. He passes a special sign with each of them except Judas — a final, individual intimate moment — bookending the beginning of the day. They'll be returning to their regular lives, and now, with his mark engraved inside them, his external mark is extraneous. For Judas, he merely holds the mirror up, for Judas to see himself as he is: a betrayer.
  • Also at the Last Supper, while they still don't know what is to come later, Jesus tells them, indirectly, why he will die: His body will be broken and blood will be shed "for the forgiveness of sins." There is no indication that they actually understood him at this time, but as with the biblical disciples, it fed their joy later.
  • After supper, the re-enactment of Jesus' temptations gives the disciples a picture of resisting the call of the daily-grind world. It ends with Jesus' final words before his betrayal and Crucifixion — "You shall do homage to the Lord your God and worship Him alone" — as the foundation for the disciples' future lives.

Aside from the joy and fun they have in putting them on, these and the other stories and songs provide the disciples with a foundation that undergirds the development of their community. Their community, their love, and their life is no longer grounded merely in an emotional reaction against the me-first life of the daily grind from which they were called, but rather it has a solid foundation in teaching that gets to the heart of why the me-first life is actually a me-first living death.

Along the way, Godspell slips in an important and creatively done counterpoint to common, latent conceptions of God. After Jesus tells them about not letting one hand know what the other is doing, the film addresses the audience directly, to clear something up. Many people live as though God's main idea is to keep a ledger card in heaven of good deeds and bad deeds, and that the ledger gets balanced out at the end of one's life. Judas starts to explain to the audience about the 100 million "ledger angels" in heaven, but Jesus cuts him short, bringing us back to the "reward" that is the full life and joy he is teaching the disciples through the goodness of his ways.

Carrying Jesus back to life

The Crucifixion is horrendous for the disciples. The music of "The Finale" is piercing in its guitar screams, volume, and drive, and the disciples are screaming and wailing along with the music. It seems all hope is lost as the Master dies. Yet somehow, as the sun rises and a bird chirps, they find life and hope and begin to sing "Long Live God".

What gave them this hope? The film itself is silent on the question. Jesus is and remains motionless for the rest of the film. Did they put together the pieces of the Last Supper's body and blood with "turn the other cheek" and other teachings toward forgiveness? Did they realize from this how forgiveness is a life-through-death experience? Was it simply a filmmaking shortcut to not elaborate more on how they found hope? Three things are clear: They did find hope, their hope was grounded in a view of Jesus being alive, and their response was to carry Jesus back to the City, joyfully dancing the life he had given them. As they carry Jesus back, their singing melds from "Long Live God" into "Prepare Ye The Way", sung to the people of the City they are going back to, and then into "Day by Day", the simple, humble, path to heart-centered change.

Is it biblical?

As I read Godspell, it is indeed consistent with the Bible in nearly every significant way. Most importantly to the film's work, the uninhibited joy and life in Godspell embodies the spirit of life that the Bible gets to when Jesus says, in John 10:10, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." If we take nothing more away from the film than a lighter spirit and a deeper love for life, it will have served well. Jesus said his load is light.

The most significant question about whether Godspell is biblical is whether or not it depicts the Resurrection and, if not, is there an artistic reason for not doing so — a reason that enhances what the film is doing in us. To this question, one thing is immediately clear: After the Crucifixion, the Jesus character is never shown to have any signs of life. For some, this may settle the question (i.e., that there is no Resurrection) and lower their opinion of the film (or raise it, for any who think the Resurrection is mythical). Yet there is more to consider, including:

  • During the Crucifixion, the disciples affirm Jesus' divinity. On the Cross, Jesus sings, "Oh God, I'm bleeding...I'm dying...I'm dead." In each case, the disciples reply, "Oh God, you're bleeding...dying...dead" (emphasis added) — they are calling Jesus God, which alludes to miracle-working power.
  • As the sun rises after the Crucifixion, with reverent, ever-so-slightly hopeful expressions and even a couple of smiles, they take Jesus down singing "long live God." This is a testament that he is indeed alive.
  • As they sing "long live God," just before they break into dancing and clapping, they split into counterpoint singing "prepare ye the way of the Lord." The Lord is coming, not merely gone, as they carry him to the city. Their joy mirrors the joy in the Bible after Jesus' Resurrection and ascension to the sky.
  • "Prepare ye the Way" gives way to "Day by Day" as the disciples make it from Central Park back into the City. "Day by Day" continues after the disciples disappear around the corner, and, as the film closes, we are left with the honking and bustle of the City overlaid with a call to day-by-day seeking the Lord. It speaks hope that more of the City will be overtaken by and infused with Jesus' ways.

Does all this make a Resurrection? What might the filmmakers have done instead? Jesus could have awoke and started dancing with them. An additional scene might have portrayed the ascension in some way, perhaps by Jesus suddenly disappearing (in the same way that John flashed in and out of sight at the film's opening), and the disciples could have danced back into the City on their own. Yet, although something like that would have come closer to literally depicting the Bible, there is a strong visual power in the way the film has Jesus being bodily carried back to the City. The only way the City knows of the life Jesus came to bring is if we "carry" him to them, living the life and joy he brought. Our life and joy continue even though Jesus is physically dead to us (i.e., no longer here with us), and this contrast is strongly shown as the disciples bear his limp body.

What this does for me is to allow the question of whether Godspell portrays the Resurrection to melt into the question of whether it embodies the life-giving implications of his Resurrection. To that question, I find that Godspell most definitely brings us to life, if we are able to see it. This, too, washes over the film's lack of representation of Jesus as miracle-worker or healer, considering that the film's focus was on his teachings.

Is it biblical? — some smaller points

Although I did not scour the film for small ways that one might question whether Godspell departs from the Bible, I did listen closely so as to hear such concerns as I might catch in watching the film. There are some, but not very many, and few have any definite conflict. What I noticed, and how they each strike me, are as follows (but to be clear: even when these do stray from being biblical, they are nowhere near significant enough to discredit the film, but rather are cause for reflection on and grace toward the filmmakers and their work):

  • "...mostly goodly...": In God's opening monologue, he says, "...and of this pleasant garden, that I have mostly goodly planted..." However, in Genesis, the Bible makes no qualification of "mostly" as it declares that God's Creation is good, saying simply, "it was very good."
  • "...inner God...": The song "Turn Back O Man" says "Thou...still will not hear thine inner God proclaim: Turn back O man." The phrase "inner God" could be read in a New Age type of way, as in "you are God within." On the other hand, it could also be read simply as one's conscience or as "God within you," which Christians can understand as a reference to the Holy Spirit. But the film would have been less accessible to non-Christians had there been a direct use of Holy Spirit. Thus a phrase like "inner God" is more appropriate to use — people can understand it as an authoritative voice speaking inside each of us.
  • The drunk Samaritan: In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan is played as a drunk, but there is no such indication in the Bible. The artistic problem here is how to communicate that, to Jews in Jesus' time, Samaritans were a despised people, and the strength of the parable derives from this. Even new Christians have to have this explained when they first hear the story. Playing the Samaritan as a drunk does a fair job of immediately getting the "despised" point across.
  • The son runs: In the parable of the Prodigal Son, when the son returns, it is the son who runs to the father whereas, in the Bible, it is the father who runs to the son. This is a significant departure because the Bible is emphasizing how deep the father's love and forgiveness are and, in the parable, the father and son are metaphors for God and us, respectively. Also, in the Bible, the parable ends with no reconciliation between the brothers, and there is no indication that the younger brother despised the older.
  • "...city of man...": This is not really a biblical question since this phrase does not appear in the Bible, but it is worth addressing because Augustine, an early Christian writer, set forth a distinction between the "City of God" and the "City of Man." Augustine focused on distinctions in political systems and goals between the two (e.g., goals of peace and war, respectively). In Godspell, the context of the phrase "city of man" in "Beautiful City" clearly shows it refers to a place like Augustine's City of God (e.g., "dreaming of" "sweet rejoicing" and "love").
  • Jesus kisses Judas: In the Gospels, it is Judas who kisses Jesus. Also, in the film, Judas seems hesitant and confused, but if anything, the Gospels portray him as confident and direct. I find that Godspell's rendering works very well, compressing multiple points into one. Jesus gave himself willingly, and this shows in his initiation of the kiss. After the betrayal, Judas was confused and regretful, as shown by his suicide.

There are other times where the film might cut short something it takes from the Bible. For example, Jesus responds to the question from the "teachers of the Law monster" about the greatest commandment by saying, "Thou shalt love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul," but the Bible also inludes "all your mind" and "all your strength". Though it might be more technically accurate to include "mind" or "strength," I find this to be a minor point to the film's overall trueness to the Bible (and anyway, "strength" occurs in only one of the three relevant Bible passages — and not in Matthew, which is the stated biblical basis for Godspell).

  • God's quiet, meditative opening monologue is suddenly broken by the blast of car horns on the Brooklyn Bridge — jarring us into the noise and confusion of daily life.
  • Then, the traffic noise fades into a ghostly wind as the camera pans to John the Baptist on the footpath of the Brooklyn Bridge — it signals that something ethereal and different, even peaceful, is entering the City, but entering physically, in that we hear the rattling of John's cart and his humming.
  • As we first see the dancer disciple, Joanne, she is framed behind a window with the word "Showcase" prominently displayed, as if she is treated by the world as merely a doll in a window for the world to gaze upon — it is the most subtle of the ways in which the disciples are shown to be struggling with the me-first, daily-grind world.
  • The waitress disciple, Katie, is half-way through James Joyce's Ulysses, which is among the hardest of great American novels to read — it shows a heart willing to work to reach for more in life.
  • The playfulness of their exploration of the junkyard is wonderful, with many small, fun moments that emphasize the playfulness of the show and the simple joy of Jesus' message. Some that stick out to me:
    • Gilmer's puppet show in the broken television.
    • Merrell's toying with the broken umbrella (which returns later as a sword when Jesus is arrested).
    • Jerry taking a nap in the engine compartment of the car.
    • Lynne blindly tossing a bra out of the trunk, straight to Joanne.
    • Jesus' initiation of and the disciples jumping into the random music making, which shows an ability to find and make beauty out of the scraps of life.
    • Robin "planting" a small tree, Jesus watering it, and Judas changing it for a big one — then when Robin sees what happened and Jesus walks by, she turns to follow him with an amazed look on her face.
    • Merrell and Katie each finding one skate, then Merrell giving his to her.
    • That gradually throughout, the disciples add little things to each other's outfit, e.g., a vest here, a hat there, more face paint — they are building up each other as they build a community.
  • As Jesus and the disciples leave the junkyard, we see that they have completely cleaned up and transformed it — it speaks of the transformation that God desires to have in our lives, not a legalistic, ritualistic white-wash, but a beautiful, artistic, complete makeover.
  • After the eye/light teaching under the archway, Jesus is "dribbling" Gilmer — it's a creative moment of joyful silliness.
  • During "Turn Back O Man", the switch in tone when Jesus sings a verse as he writes in the dust/fog on the window — aside from the haunting nature of Victor Garber's singing, it emphasizes a moment of Jesus expressing his vision that all God's people be one.
  • While the disciples are singing "All Good Gifts" and Jesus is saying how God "dresses" the lilies of the field in such beauty, and so we should have confidence in God's care for us, the flower he is admiring is much more plain than a lily — this even more emphasizes Jesus' point: If we can find so much to admire in a relatively plain and common flower (perhaps it is even a weed), how much more beauty is there for us in all God provided around us every moment.
  • The film clips that supplement the story telling in the Cherry Lane Theater — it is pure fun the way they play off of and imitate what's on the screen.
  • While walking under the arches singing "long live God," the disciples are actually "marching" in time to the music with synchronized steps — it is quite reverent, reminiscent of a funeral march in a cathedral (except for the fact that they are markedly swaying right-to-left in a manner that evokes a hopeful note), and a stark contrast with their subsequent break into raucous and overflowing joy and dancing.

Screenshots and dialog copyright © 1973 by the filmmakers.

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2 Responses to “Godspell”

  1. lizebeth says:

    In regard to your analysis of Godspell, I believe the explanation of the face paint is that everyone has their own pet sins..their own unique set of hurts, hangup, habits that make us different from every other aND which ade clear as day to Him. Jesus paints it on each face to show them that he knows each of them completely (warts and all) and loves them regardless. Then at the last supper he wipes everyone’s “sins” away except his own to signify that with his death all their sins are wiped away. That is why he leaves his own on –the heart. It signifies the reason he took our sins upon himself : LOVE. The tears signify his suffering by ta king on all our sins.

  2. That’s a lovely thought, lizebeth. Building on that, I see two other things. First, he paints their faces as he is talking about the law (see the first still in the post above), which aligns with your reading that the paint points us to each person’s uniqueness, including their sins. Second, Jesus paints attractive things on their faces, and often we don’t see the ugliness of our sins, but instead we sort of wish to see them as something nice that we want to keep. There are indeed rich images here.

    Thank you for your comment! It enriches me now, and will also enrich my next viewing of Godspell.

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"Backstory" talks speak of things behind the film. Go to "Before" or "After" talks for the film itself. More»» by Randy Heffner

The big picture behind Godspell

When a film dwells heavily in the content of a particular organized belief system, the way that Godspell dwells in Christianity, a couple of the main backstory questions to arise are “What were the beliefs of the creators?” and “How do those beliefs factor into what they were trying to do with the show?” For the film Godspell, the three most significant creators to consider, and their main orientations toward the work, are:

  • John Michael Tebelak originally created Godspell as a small production for work on his master’s in drama at Carnegie-Mellon University. A member of the Episcopal church, even at one point considering the priesthood, Tebelak credited a specific inspiration for the show: An Easter Vigil service (i.e., an anticipation of the Resurrection) that left him feeling that they treated Jesus as more dead than alive. He had been re-reading the Gospels in the Bible as a potential source for material, and in them found “a great joy, a simplicity.” The stark contrast between this and his experience at the Vigil sparked a rapid burst of writing to create Godspell. With Godspell, Tebelak said he “wanted to make it the simple, joyful message that I felt the first time I read them and recreate the sense of community.” For the “clown” schtick in Godspell, Tebelak’s inspiration was the book Feast of Fools by Harvard’s Harvey Cox (especially the chapter “Christ the Harlequin”).
  • Stephen Schwartz was brought in later to re-write the music for Godspell. Schwartz’s primary focus with Godspell is on the community being built by the disciples; he downplays a focus on Jesus. He was not so much a fan of the film version. Schwartz has said that, prior to doing Godspell, he “didn’t really know anything about” Jesus beyond the general story “of his birth and then his death and the belief of some in his Resurrection.” Godspell gave Schwartz a stronger appreciation for the Golden Rule (i.e., “do to others as you would have them do to you.” As a matter of policy, Schwartz does not publicly disclose his religious/metaphysical beliefs.
  • David Greene directed the Godspell film. I was unable to turn up anything beyond biographies of Greene’s professional work — nothing specifically about his views of or work on the film.

I find that Tebelak’s vision comes through strongly in the film. Furthermore, I find it significant that Tebelak’s vision was sparked by his attendance at a service of observance of the Resurrection. Though neither the film nor the stage play contain a literal depiction of the Resurrection, Tebelak’s response to observing a failure-of-life in the Easter Vigil led him to Godspell, whether intentionally or not, as an expression of the deeper point of the Resurrection: that life comes through death. In the grand narrative of Christianity, it is through Jesus’ death and Resurrection that we have life, yet even in small ways, such as one’s forgiving a small offense, there are small deaths that lead to life (i.e., giving up one’s “right” to revenge).

Schwartz’s focus on community (shared also by Tebelak) is a strong and important element of a life-giving response to Godspell — and to Jesus himself. Schwartz’s general lack of knowledge of Christianity did not prevent him from capturing and reinforcing the strong spirit of Christian life in Tebelak’s vision. Perhaps his lack of Christian knowledge is also part of his downplaying a focus on the importance of Jesus’ teachings.

Once a work of art is complete and its creator(s), not being a part of the work, fade to the background, the work is there to stand on its own. The context and intent of its creation is still there, relevant, and interesting, yet a work may speak things that the creator(s) never even considered. Thus, even if Tebelak’s background and vision were not centered in appreciation of what Christianity should work in one’s spirit and life, I would hold it valid to read Godspell as a beautiful embodiment of the life Jesus came to bring and valid to place as much (if not more) focus on how his teachings lead to life as on the bonding of a community. The fact that these were Tebelak’s vision simply strengthens the reading of Godspell as such.

Other interesting points

Some other backstory points are worth noting about Godspell:

  • Bethesda Fountain, with its Angel of the Waters statue where the disciples first gather for the baptism scene, was designed in reference to John 5:2-9, where the waters of the pool of Bethesda were said to have healing powers whenever an angel would stir the water.
  • After the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in 1992, Schwartz rewrote the lyrics to "Beautiful City." He finds his original lyrics to be "'drippy' and somewhat cloying." Certainly the updated lyrics recognize explicitly the brokenness of our world (e.g., "Out of the ruins and rubble" and "When your trust is all but shattered / When your faith is all but killed"), whereas the original centers on the desirability of the vision (e.g., "We're not afraid of voicing / All the things we're dreaming of" and "We see nations rise / In each other's eyes"). Perhaps both together make a complete vision (both are listed here, with the newer version noted as the "alternate").
  • In a short piece, Joseph Barton of Brooklyn Preparatory School, provides a few extra quotes by Tebelak that confirm and expand Tebelak's vision as noted above. In particular, Peggy Gordon, a member of the cast and co-writer of the song "By My Side," quoted Tebelak as saying the show was intended to "weave God's spell over the audience."
  • The Godspell Motto, repeated by the cast before each performance, is a beautiful quick mediation on being loving, teachable, and growing. As it has to do with the staging of the show, I find "Speak in a low, persuasive tone" to be the most significant part. It mitigates against the show being just a series of gags by encouraging the cast to have a tone of seriousness in the midst of the fun.
  • As Schwartz notes in 1999 notes for the stage play, several of Godspell's songs were largely based on the Episcopal hymnal, including "Save the People", "Day by Day", Bless the Lord", "All Good Gifts", and "Turn Back, O Man". Lyrical adaptations from the Bible include "On the Willows" (Psalm 137), "Light of the World" (Matthew 5), and "Alas for You" (Matthew 23). However, in 1982, "Turn Back O Man" was proposed to be removed from the hymnal for reasons of unsound theology (specifically, it was thought that the hymn inappropriately fostered the notion "that the initial and fundamental steps towards salvation are made by human effort, apart from the assistance of divine grace").
  • The song "We Beseech Thee" is in the stage play, but film director David Greene thought it wouldn't work for the film. So he asked Schwartz to write another song and (the original) "Beautiful City" was the result. A fan used a recording of "We Beseech Thee" and clips from the film to create this video (after you play it, YouTube may well show you other videos of Godspell stagings).

Other interesting links

  • The Godspell section of MusicalSchwartz.com, a fansite for Stephen Schwartz — go toward the bottom of the page for content about Godspell's history and backstory.
  • The FAQ at Stephen Schwartz's official site, which has a few interesting questions and answers about the show.
  • The forum archives at Stephen Schwartz's official site, which has a history of questions Schwartz has answered about Godspell, his life, and (what he will say in regard to) his religious/metaphysical beliefs. There are many separate parts of the archive. Look first under the Godspell sub-heading and the "Stephen Schwartz" main heading.
  • On MusicalSchwartz.com, Peggy Gordon talks about the meaning of the song "By My Side".
  • Wikipedia article's listing of locations used in the film.

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