What a strange beast Catch My Soul is. A rock musical released in 1974 to widespread indifference, if not jeers, it was directed by Patrick McGoohan, produced by Jack Good, starred Richie Havens and was an adaptation of the play Othello by William Shakespeare. There’s so much talent in here and yet… pfft.
Thumbnail sketches of the above. McGoohan was the creator/co-writer/co-director/star of the 1960s cult TV series The Prisoner. Good had created “youth TV” in the UK, producing shows like Six-Five Special and Oh Boy!, before taking off for the US and reproducing the success with Shindig!. Havens was the charismatic singer-songwriter who had catapulted himself to fame after electrifying the Woodstock festival in 1969. Othello was the guy who, in a fit of uncontrollable jealousy, killed his wife, Desdemona, at the prompting of his “friend”, Iago. Shakespeare you probably already know.
Catch My Soul was Good’s baby, and had already had a successful run on stage in the US, where Iago was played by Jerry Lee Lewis, before tranferring to the UK, where it was again a hit. In the wake of a run of rock musical successes like Hair (1967), Jesus Christ Superstar (1970), Godspell (1971), Grease (1972) and The Rocky Horror Show (1973) – some already films, others in the works – a film adaptation of Catch My Soul seemed like the next logical step.
McGoohan was teed up to direct. He was Good’s neighbour in New Mexico at the time and was available, having only worked sporadically since The Prisoner finished in 1968. In his version of events he took the project on because he wasn’t doing much else with his time – a “why not?” But he’d also been in a jazzed-up adaptation of Othello, All Night Long, ten years before (a rare chance to see Charles Mingus and Dave Brubeck on film), and so maybe thought this was a chance to make amends by Shakespeare – All Night Long had bombed.
How wrong he was. Catch My Soul also bombed, badly. Audiences stayed away, critics hated it and it ended up retitled as Santa Fe Satan and playing on the drive-in circuit, to audiences who would watch anything as long as they could get on with the real business of the evening – making out.
From this distance it doesn’t seem as much of a failure, and there is good stuff to be picked out from the ashes. Most obviously the gutsy, intense (McGoohan-esque, in fact) performance of Lance LeGault as Iago, the leader of a hippie commune whose little green monster is activated when itinerant preacher Othello (Havens) arrives and shacks up with Desdemona (Season Hubley), a hippie hottie in granny glasses. From here it’s a case of Iago, who might be Satan in disguise, dripping poison in the volatile Othello’s ear until the enraged husband kills his innocent wife. Spoilers.
LeGault may be good but the performances of Havens and Hubley are just downright weird. They simply do not cut through in the opening scenes, with Havens in particular a puzzle – such a powerful singing voice, such a weak speaking voice. It doesn’t help that they are swamped – as the entire film is – by lots of hippie skipping about and campfire shenanigans in opening scenes that look like old guys’ ideas about what young people are like.
Once Good (and to a lesser extent McGoohan) have got these “look, we’re hip” sequences out of the way and Catch My Soul leans back into Shakespeare, things pick up, as do the performances by both Havens and Hubley. It actually gets quite good, and the fact that the great Conrad Hall is the cinematographer (he did everything from Cool Hand Luke to Road to Perdition) lends it a high end sheen.
The songs are good. Havens wrote and performed a few, swamp rocker Tony Joe White (who plays the useful idiot Cassio) wrote and performed a few, Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett (of Delaney & Bonnie and Friends fame) wrote and sing a couple, with the rest a mix of songs by Jack Good and Ray Pohlman (including the highlight, Put Out the Light).
God, can Havens sing. Though there are no bad singing performances here, perhaps it’s big-lunged LeGault who’s the biggest surprise if all you know him from is playing Colonel Roderick Decker in The A Team on TV in the 1980s. Susan Tyrrell is also impressive as Emilia. She’d been Oscar nominated the year before for Fat City and brings a minor character to life. She can also sing.
McGoohan’s direction is efficient and there is the odd moment when flare is evident. The film’s shortcomings are down to a messy first third, which McGoohan puts down to Good getting God midway through and recutting the film to add in “religious stuff”.
Havens and Hubley is another problem. They don’t gel. They don’t seem madly in love. And without that there’s no way we can feel the tragedy of Othello killing the thing he holds most dear. “Perdition catch my soul / But I do love thee! And when I love thee not, / Chaos is come again.”
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© Steve Morrissey 2022